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Veterans Face Transitioning Challenges At California Schools

Chloe Stepney |
January 11, 2012 | 4:15 p.m. PST


Veteran Jennifer Snell holds the wooden pole that displays a USC Veterans tshirt at the AIDS Walk Los Angeles on Oct. 16 (photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
Veteran Jennifer Snell holds the wooden pole that displays a USC Veterans tshirt at the AIDS Walk Los Angeles on Oct. 16 (photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
After serving in the United States Army for eight years, including a tour in Iraq, Andrew Nicholls, a 27-year-old student at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he had to “relearn how to learn.”

“I’d been out of school for so long that I didn’t know how to take notes anymore, I didn’t know how to study for tests – that was the challenging part, and that’s where you really rely on your veteran community,” said Nicholls, who is one of about 300 student veterans at UCLA.

Nearly 10 years senior to thousands of undergraduate students on campus, Nicholls plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology working with veterans. The junior transferred from Santa Monica College to UCLA in September after injuring his back while serving in the military. He says his positive experiences as a student veteran are because of his proactive attitude – something some veterans forget to employ when entering a higher-education setting.

“It can be very frustrating. You go from a situation where you’re told what to do every day…and you go into a situation where you’re very much on your own – nobody is there to tell you what to do or how to do it,” Nicholls said.

Currently totaling between 60,000 and 70,000 students, California’s higher education system attracts more veterans than any other state, said Trevor Albertson, deputy secretary of veterans’ affairs of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The World War II generation, they came home, and they went to work, and they joined the local veterans organization, and that’s how they got back into society. Vietnam vets – that was about quietly not being a veteran and just going into something and just not telling what you did,” Albertson said. “For our generation, it’s about being proud to be a veteran and what you’ve done, and returning and making the most of what’s been given to you, and for most veterans, that means going to school.”

The post-9/11 GI Bill — effective August 1, 2009 — pays a veteran’s full tuition and fees for public institutions and pays up to $17,500 per academic year for private or foreign institutions. For veterans attending more expensive universities, the Yellow Ribbon Program can provide additional funds to cover costs exceeding $17,500.

The bill also provides a monthly housing allowance and $1,000 stipend for books and supplies. These benefits are available for up to 36 months of education and can be used within 15 years of being released from active duty.

Though only roughly 15 percent of veterans use their GI Bill benefits, Albertson said going to school after returning home is the best way to acclimate to civilian life and prepare for a new career.

(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
“You put your neck on the line. You did great things for this country, now come home and build your country. And to do that you need new skills, and that’s what the GI Bill is all about,” Albertson said.

Since the implementation of the post-9/11 GI Bill, schools, including UCLA, and other southern California colleges, such as the University of Southern California and Santa Monica College, have seen increases in veteran enrollment. According to research published by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit that conducts research and analysis to effect improvements in policy and decision-making, the benefits provided by the new GI Bill are more generous than the previous Montgomery GI Bill, which influenced many veterans to enroll in school.

Despite better funding benefits, veterans face transitional challenges, including meeting academic expectations, relating to non-veteran students, and coping with service-related disabilities.

As enrollment increases and these challenges become apparent, schools discuss and strategize ways to make their higher education communities more welcoming and accommodating for student veterans. While some schools struggle to reach every veteran to make them aware of available resources, other schools battle the constraints of limited funding and staffing.

Santa Monica College

At Santa Monica College, a three-year federal grant funds the Veteran Affairs Resource Center. The college has not designated any funds for the resource center, said Linda Sinclair, faculty counseling leader for the Veterans Resource Office.

“We’re all paid out of different departments,” Sinclair said. “There’s nothing that shows there’s a permanent staff here.” Still, the small office services nearly 500 students this year, more than three times the number of students five years ago.

“We have a coffee pot, but it’s not big enough,” Sinclair said. “They seem to like to come in here and study, but they seem to not have enough room.”

The resource office processes paperwork between the student and Veteran Affairs, offers academic counseling and peer-to-peer support, and organizes private tutoring with voluntary professors. For services not available in the office, counselors connect students to the appropriate person or resource, Sinclair said.

Computers and a small lounge area are available to students when the office is open, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“I use the resources all the time,” said Matthew Lutz, a sophomore studying computer science, who chose to attend SMC because of its veterans office and available resources.

“I went and talked to a veterans counselor because I needed to figure out what I needed to do to get extended time on tests because I had received a brain injury,” said Lutz, who served in the Army from 2000 to 2005. “It was nice to have a little bit of comfort and reassurance.”

Alfredo De Teresa, a Navy veteran studying business administration, said most veterans get what they need at the office, especially the first time they go in, but the office is too small.

“It’s really crowded in the tiny office sometimes,” De Teresa said. “You overhear people from across the hallway…sometimes a veteran just needs a quiet place, and that’s not really available at the center.” He suggests creating a quiet lounge available specifically for veterans, in addition to providing more computers.

De Teresa, who said his biggest push for going to school was the post-9/11 GI Bill, said he’s seen improvements in the paperwork process with the VA in his three years as a student, but thinks its system could still be more efficient. He suggested an online system in which student veterans can check the status and arrival dates of monthly checks, textbook and supplies money and other monetary payments.

University of Southern California

(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
Five years ago, the University of Southern California catered to about 85 student veterans. Today, more than 500 students are using the post-9/11 G.I. Bill to fund their education at the private institution located near downtown Los Angeles.

“We feel it’s going to go up,” said Samantha Marquez, student records specialist and veterans coordinator in the Academic Records and Registrar office. “If the number of veterans keeps increasing, I think the department will look into upping the staff.” In previous years, the veterans affairs sector of the registrar’s office employed one part-time employee; yet, as the population climbed, the university hired one full-time employee, an additional VA certifying official, and several part-time student-workers. The office handles all paperwork between students and Veteran Affairs regarding the G.I. Bill.

“It’s been very helpful to me,” said Jennifer Snell, a first-year master’s of military social work student and Air Force veteran. “I think they have awesome customer service in there, but they need more people.”

Snell said her transition into USC has been positive and easy, because she prepared herself by knowing what resources were available and how to navigate around the campus.

“I guess I just adapt really well. I don’t like to be that little lost soul wondering around,” said Snell, who grew up moving frequently because her father served in the Air Force.

“[Student veterans] just need to change their cognition about [college],” Snell said. “The military is very team-orientated, and college is very individual.”

New to the campus this school year is an office that facilitates a veteran’s non-paperwork needs: the Transfer and Veteran Students Programs office.

“It’s to let [veterans] know that USC does appreciate the service that they’ve given, and I think, too, to let them know they don’t have to go through USC alone. There is a support system, or at least a building block to their support system,” said Syreeta Greene, assistant director of the TVSP office. The purpose of the office is to assist transfer and veteran students in having a smooth transition into the USC community.

In the summer of 2011 before the office opened, transfer and veteran students participated in an online survey, which the office used to understand students and to plan goals and events for the academic year.

“The programs that we have put on and will continue to put on give students the opportunity to support their fellow peers and again build a stronger Trojan family community,” said Greene, who attended USC for undergraduate and graduate schools and has been working at the university ever since.

The office hosted programs during the fall semester such as a Resume and Alumni Workshop for Veterans, where veterans learned tips for making and improving resumes, heard from USC veteran alumni, and attended a Veterans Symposium, where different members of the military shared their experiences.

In addition to building community, Greene said she would like to see an expansion of the Yellow Ribbon Program, a lounge space for veterans, and more programs that allow veterans to connect and build.

“I’m not a veteran, but I have an ear for people. I have a heart for connecting people to resources,” Greene said.

Joshua Jacobs, a Marine veteran and junior studying business, said Greene is doing a good job in the programs office, but the university should do more to help ease veterans into USC.

(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
(photo courtesy Jeffrey Ting)
“The transition is the hardest part of coming here,” Jacobs said. “Being immediately thrown back into civilian life is a difficult transition…there’s so many facets of things that cause stress.”

Jacobs, whose ultimate goal is start his own business several years out of college, said priority registration of classes would help veterans plan their day-to-day schedules and yearly course plan to ensure on-time graduation.

Currently, incoming student veterans register after freshman students have chosen classes, which leaves limited options for general education classes and meeting times. This can be particularly difficult for student veterans, many of whom commute to school, have families or have jobs.

Jacobs also suggested an office where veterans would be required to visit before beginning classes. The office would make every veteran feel welcome on campus, notify the veteran of all available resources on campus, including disability services and psychological counseling, and walk the veteran around campus pointing out where his or her classes will meet.

“We have enough military presence on campus that we should be able to do that,” said Jacobs, who believes current student veterans would be willing to volunteer time to conduct walking tours or mentor incoming student veterans as part of his ideal office.

University of California, Los Angeles

Before 2008, resources for student veterans at UCLA were scattered across the campus. Now, the Veterans Resource Office, the hub for student veterans on campus, provides a “one-stop-shop” experience, said Edward Gurrola, director of the Veterans Resource Office.

“Student veterans wanted to have a place specifically to address their demands and needs,” Gurrola said. “We really work with a strong resource team.”

The VRO provides veterans with information and services regarding VA benefits, connects veterans to their needed resources on campus, and hosts workshops and social events. Student veteran coordinators who work in the office allow students to come in with questions and be able to relate to the fellow veteran who is helping them, Gurrola said.

“They really have that insight that I don’t have,” Gurrola said. “All of us together then provide services to students.”

The office organizes a one-unit “Boots to Bruins” course, taught by a therapist from counseling services.

“It’s addressing transitional concerns that you might encounter – through readings, sharing of experiences…we also get to find out what students think,” Gurrola said.

Evie Mendoza, a Navy veteran and senior studying anthropology, said the resource team is helpful and accommodating.
“UCLA does a tremendous job to try to understand and accommodate all of the veteran students,” said Mendoza, who attended Cerritos College before transferring to UCLA.

Still, Mendoza said she hopes the office will go beyond offering resources and plan more fun events.

“That’s something to offer a more college experience because most of us are older, and we want to go in and get out, and you really don’t get to enjoy college as the younger kids do,” Mendoza said.

Matthew Mccaa, a Marine Corps veteran and junior studying psychology, said he also hopes to have more social events for student veterans. But, as president of the student-run Military Veterans Organization, he said it is difficult to motivate veterans to attend events.

“It’s really, really hard to find the veterans and actually get participation,” Mccaa said. “[We’re] at the point where a guy has gotten out of the military and has worked hard enough to make it into a major university. A lot of us are very, very serious students. We’re not there to party. We’ve had our fair share of that…we’re not there to be social. We’re there to kick ass academically.”

Mccaa said he hopes to apply for funding at the beginning of next quarter, outreach to students and increase participation in the club, which will form a better sense of a veteran community on campus.

California Department of Veteran Affairs

To help ease the transition into higher education, Albertson, an Air Force veteran and former college professor, said he plans to help veterans before they become students.

“The system for them to succeed exists. It’s about making it clear how to do that,” he said. “When you’re a high school grad thinking nothing but military for the last four years, and you’re 3,000 miles from home, it’s damn difficult to figure out how I get back to school.”

Albertson proposed an initiative to administer an “Integration Form” to all members of the military that will help facilitate plans following active duty. On the form, there is a box that service members can check to receive information about the community college nearest their home, what to do to get admitted, how to apply for financial aid, how to use the GI Bill and more information.

“We’re just now getting it up off the ground,” Albertson said. “But it’s getting a lot of attention and it’s actually going to do a lot of good for the vets, because it’s one of those things that’s not costing anything; it’s just better focusing information.”

Albertson said the most important thing that the VA and universities can do is to remind service members and veterans about the benefits available through the GI Bill by using billboards, television commercials, pop-up ads online, or whatever it takes.

“The best option is coming home, getting some training in a new field or advancing the skills you already got, and then launching that job search that gets you that stable job that gets you and your family health care and gets you a safe and comfortable home and makes you a real successful citizen,” Albertson said.


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