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Soldiers Are Marching Back to School

3 ideas that help post-9/11 vets connect on campus

When Kyle Gettelman, 25, signed up for the Army Reserve, he wasn’t thinking about college. After eight months in Afghanistan in 2012, he returned home and decided to enroll, something he never thought he’d do, he says.

Across the country, others who have served are also heading back to college in record numbers, taking advantage of exceptional education benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to full tuition, a monthly housing stipend and money for books and supplies to veterans, service members and their families to complete their postsecondary education.

(MORE: 10 Ways to Cut the Cost of Going Back to College)

That’s financial support in the billions, says Emma Scherer, director of communications with Student Veterans of America (SVA), a grassroots student organization dedicated to providing military veterans with the resources and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has issued $43.1 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to more than 1.2 million veterans in just the past five years,” Scherer says. (To learn more about benefits, check out this tool.)

The Post-9/11 GI Bill has drawn comparisons with the original GI Bill (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) and, like it, is positioned to significantly impact veterans’ vital role in shaping the nation’s economic and educational systems, according to D. Wayne Robinson, SVA president and CEO.

“Members of the Greatest Generation showed us that an investment in veterans was an investment in our welfare and legacy,” he says. “And it’s happening again.”

(MORE: Who’ll Provide Care When Military Caregivers Can’t?)

Some colleges and universities are better prepared than others to handle the flood of post-911 veterans and service members. Nearly three-quarters have dedicated personnel and resources specifically for them, according to a recent survey conducted by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and InsideTrack.

But significantly, the vast majority aren’t tracking whether their efforts are helping veterans stay in school, the survey found. Even more critically, only a quarter of institutions say they fully understand why their military-background students “stopout,” or dropout.

To be sure, there’s an abundance of resources available to help veterans and institutions.
Just last August, the Obama Administration and the Departments of Education and Veterans Administration, in concert with more than 100 education experts, launched the 8 Keys to Success program to help with the transition from military service to classroom.

Strategies That Are Gaining Traction

Centralizing all campus efforts for vets and creating a gathering space (one of the 8 Keys) is working. Examples are the Pat Tillman Veteran Center at Arizona State University, the Veteran Resource Center at Auburn University and the Veteran Services and Military Assistance Center (VSMAC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“UW-Madison is heading in the right direction,” says Travis Leanna, a former Marine who helped “close down” Fallujah, Iraq, in 2009 and is now a junior majoring in electrical engineering at Madison. VSMAC serves all military affiliated students: veterans, active duty, reservists, National Guard personnel, ROTC members and military dependents.

But good benefits and veteran-friendly facilities alone can’t get the job done.

“The transition from the military to civilian life, especially college, is very hard,” Leanna says. “Schools can better ease that shift with dedicated courses that address the transition vets are making — and with classes that educate the rest of the student body about what their veteran peers are dealing with. We need to bridge the separation that exists between veterans and the rest of the students, the rest of society,” he adds.

These men and women were motivated to serve their country and, with the proper support and advocacy, can serve it in new and better ways out of uniform. The government has stepped up with robust benefits to complete their education. Now it’s up to the rest of us to ensure our campuses and communities are doing all they can to help bring our latest generation of veterans home to stay.

(MORE: Coping When a Family Member is Deployed)

3 Ideas That Work

Here are three ideas that work:

1. The Veterans Studies Program (VTS) at Eastern Kentucky University

What it is: A multi-disciplinary program teaching veteran and non-veteran students about military structure, culture, combat and the psychological and physiological changes resulting from military service. This first-of-its-kind program encourages participants to ask questions about how military service changes a person and the struggles of returning to civilian life. The hope is that knowledge results in better understanding of services for and relationships with veterans.

2. Stars and Stripes and Vets Lounge at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW)

What they are: The Stars and Stripes program helps students who have served, or are serving in the military, be more a part of university life. Guest speakers from campus offices and community and government organizations talk about what they do and the resources they offer. The Vets Lounge is a place in the library for meeting, talking and feeling part of a larger group.

3. Vet-focused courses at UWW

What it is: English 102: Freshman English for Military And Veterans, was created by assistant professor Erin Celello. She adjusted her English 101 curriculum and limited it to veterans, military personnel and their families. Celello uses everything from poetry by Iraq and Afghanistan vets to Shakespeare’s Henry V as teaching tools. Says her student Gettelman, the vet who served in Afghanistan: “Everybody who had active duty/deployment time was able to connect with what we were reading, learning and discussing.”

Celello also sensed a lack of veteran awareness among non-military students and offered a course for them called Soldier & Society. Kaitlynn Jones’ dad served in Vietnam, but she signed up for the non-military class anyway and came away enlightened: “Everyone should realize what veterans have experienced and how we can support them. Now I have a better understanding of why my dad does things like avoid crowds and sit with his back to the wall in restaurants — because of his war experience.”

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