For the typical college freshman, heading for campus means a welcome chance to leave behind all those pesky rules that had to be followed at home and to enter a new environment of freedom and choice.
For the military veteran trying to re-enter civilian society and signing up for college classes, that lack of structure may be far less attractive and more than a little intimidating.
Ryan Barrett, who is studying for his doctorate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, went through that tough transition when he left the Air Force after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I was coming here as a Ph.D. student,” said Barrett, who is interim director of UMSL’s Veterans Center, “so I already had some experience in college. But it was still an odd feeling because not only had it been a few years, but you’re so used to having a regimented work schedule. You have tasks you have to complete, that you know you have to do.
“Then you come to a college campus and it’s not like that at all. Everything is free form. That was a little bit of a struggle for me.”
Easing that struggle is the role of veterans centers that are becoming an increasingly common presence on college campuses. Jim Craig, a retired Army officer who used to head ROTC programs for St. Louis area universities, said conversations with administrators at UMSL led to the creation of the center there in December 2012. He now heads the campus’ department of military and veterans studies.
Craig said the center can be a resource for solving big problems, like helping a veteran get used to the campus climate, and more specific ones, like how do I sign up for classes and get my benefits.
Too often, Craig said, navigating that maze can seem like what he termed “administrative ping pong,” and the student veterans who work at the center can help.
“When someone new to UMSL or in their first semester walks in the vet center door and says I just can’t figure out how to get my book payment,” Craig said, “they’ve been through it. And they know who’s at the bookstore, in case that doesn’t work. Or we know who’s in the advising office, we know who’s in the career servicing office. We’ve made great contacts around this campus.
“There was an issue that veterans ran into on this campus, where they had to be enrolled to certify their VA benefits, and they had to have their VA benefits approved before they could be enrolled. They literally had to go get the person who could push the buttons together to make this thing work. Student veterans were getting bounced around campus fairly regularly, trying just to be a student.”
UMSL is far from the only campus with a special place for vets. Southwestern Illinois College held a formal dedication of its veterans center, at a ceremony that included a visit from Gov. Pat Quinn. Director David Paeth, a self-described “Navy brat,” noted that the center gives veterans a place on campus where they can get together, relax, eat, study and enjoy a 70-inch TV that got a lot of attention during the Cardinals’ appearance in the playoffs.
“What they were really looking for was a place to gather with other veteran students,” Paeth said. “That was the real key to it.”
Two different worlds
Having that kind of peer support is a big help, Barrett said, in large part because the civilian experience can differ so much from the regimented military atmosphere that veterans are leaving behind.
“You come to a college campus,” he said, “and it’s not like that at all. You’re getting used to having different professors wanting different things from you, and basically forcing you to be very intuitive, whereas the military is much more explicit, black and white. You know what to expect.”
Walter Sinnott IV, an Army veteran who also served time in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed that getting along in the civilian world takes some getting used to.
“Your interpersonal skills tend to lack a little bit in the military,” said Sinnott, who is a junior studying business administration at UMSL. “They’re very direct. They’re very forward. They’re used to people having to do their job, versus in the civilian world people don’t necessarily have to do their job. It’s more touchy feely, stuff like that.”
Craig said such contrasts in communications styles can be eased as both groups learn together.
“You can put veterans and non-veterans together in the classroom together to talk about that,” he said, “and that’s where the conversation really grows. And that’s where you can make changes locally, and those local changes may turn into national, regional global changes if you just put students together, veterans and non-veterans, and ask them to talk about this.”
UMSL, which offers a minor in veterans studies, is a good campus to be out in front in this area, Craig added.
“UMSL is a place where veterans will end up going anyway,” he said. “It’s urban, community-minded, has an adult feel to it. It’s public. The question is: Are we supporting them and are we attracting them, and the vets center for itself has helped very clearly.”
Numbers seem to confirm that success. Three semesters ago, Craig said, UMSL had 300 veteran students, and the count is up to 429 this semester. At SWIC, Paeth reported similar growth, with 1,900 student veterans, a number that is growing at a pace of about 100 to 150 each year. Both men expect the increase to continue as troops are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Craig said the boost in enrollment is coming without much of an advertising push from the university. A challenge now, he said, is finding places to put centers. At UMSL, he noted, it’s in converted classroom space in Clark Hall, an academic building, which he said was a key to easing the transition from the military to academia.
“It’s no good to put it where students aren’t,” Craig said, adding:
“Universities have noticed that veterans centers work. But real estate at universities, unless you’re the luckiest university in the world, is very hard to come by. Carving out a center space is tough.
“Someone has to lose a space to give the veterans space, unless you’re going to build something new, and that’s not happening in Missouri public education much these days.”
From draftees to volunteers
One area on which Craig is concentrating is the impact of an all-volunteer military on returning veterans. It will be the focus of a program on campus Tuesday evening. The change from a military draft to a voluntary force has been a major one, he said.
“When service in our society ceased to be an obligation of citizenship, or even the potential to serve ceased being an obligation and started being a right to be chosen or not chosen, we made a shift,” he said. “It was slow, and I don’t think we saw it happening until now, until those people who chose, those volunteers, ended up serving over and over and over, over 13 years now of war.
“What we’ve come to is: the society, most of which do not choose, are grateful, no question about it, and want to do something. But they don’t know how. They are disconnected. In many ways, they choose weird things to be how they support. Wrapping a ribbon around a tree is nice, but it does no good to the guy in Kabul."
That relationship between the military and civilian society has moved in cycles, he added.
“The Vietnam era was probably a low point,” Craig said, “but not the only low point. And there have been high points as well, and I think we’re at a high point now, in terms of support for veterans. But that doesn’t mean it will always be that way. It changes as national priorities change.
“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. That’s how democratic societies work. They get to choose how they want to treat their veterans. But I think you have to have the conversation.”
As that conversation continues, both Craig and Paeth said everyone, in and out of the military, needs to recognize what the other side has at stake, and what is needed to help veterans succeed after their service has ended.
“It’s important for everybody in an educational institution to recognize the sacrifice and the commitment our student veterans have made,” Paeth said.
“They have made great contributions to the institution as a whole. They bring a lot of life experiences. Our assistance just helps them get an education, and that’s really what we’re here for.”