Veterans Day: How Colleges Are Easing Leap from War Zone to Classroom

Article excerpt

As soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq take advantage of the new GI bill, some colleges are more veteran-friendly than others. On Veterans Day, here's a look at efforts to smooth that transition.

You wouldn't think a lounge with couches, TVs, and computers would be key to a college student's success. But if that lounge is a place where military veterans can connect and help each other out, it could mean the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Craig Jackson serves as a peer mentor in just such a lounge at the University of Maine at Augusta. A 22-year Navy veteran who retired in 2003, he's persuaded student vets with symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to seek help at a nearby veterans hospital. He's talked with professors about how students can make up work if they've missed classes because of experiencing flashbacks from fighting in Iraq.

Sometimes it's just a matter of cheering up a fellow vet after a rough time in class: "If a guy says, 'One of the students said something about the war and I didn't like it,' I'll say, 'That's what you fought for. You want to thank them for using that right [to free speech] so that you didn't do it in vain.' That makes them feel better," Mr. Jackson says.

As hundreds of thousands of troops return from Afghanistan and Iraq and take advantage of the education benefits in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, broad efforts are under way to smooth the transition from battlefield to classroom.

A challenging transition

To go from a highly structured, team-focused environment to the individualized experience of academics can be a bit of a shock, veterans say. Or to hear young classmates complaining about a test may be frustrating when you've been tested by life-and-death scenarios in war.

Nearly 500 chapters of Student Veterans of America have sprung up on college campuses since 2008, providing the peer support that veterans' surveys indicate is essential.

In addition to setting up its lounge and peer-mentoring system, the University of Maine has hired a coordinator of veteran services, offers extra counseling, and gives veterans free entrepreneurial classes - all through a $100,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation and the American Council on Education. The grant was one of 20 handed out in 2009 to boost college support for veterans.

"More and more schools are not just saying they are vet- friendly, but really are trying to be helpful," says Brett Morris, a retired lieutenant colonel and now associate director of veterans affairs at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in Richmond. Military Times EDGE magazine ranked the school No. 1 for vets in 2010.

Here are some ways that EKU and other universities have made life easier for veterans:

- Waiving application fees.

- Offering in-state tuition regardless of residency, since military personnel serve all 50 states.

- Giving priority registration, because veterans may lose educational benefits if they are shut out of courses in their degree plan.

- Granting credit for prior learning in the military.

- Providing tuition-payment extensions and vouchers for textbooks if benefit payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs are delayed.

- Setting up a veterans center.

Most important may be something that can't be mandated - an atmosphere of respect. "The whole student body embraces us," says Ryan Donahue, president of EKU's Student Veterans of America.

But even at EKU, with 675 veterans and current service members on campus, there are pockets of insensitivity to overcome: "The veterans will tell me, 'I had somebody ask me today, did [you] kill anybody?' That's the last question you want to be asked," Mr. Morris says.

To raise awareness, Eastern Kentucky piloted a Veterans Day event that this year has spread to about 170 campuses. During the Remembrance Day National Roll Call on 11/11/11 - an especially symbolic date 10 years after the 9/11 attacks - student veterans and supporters will read the entire list of United States service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. …