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College life proves a difficult transition for returning veterans
As a teenager, Jeff Deslauriers made the honor roll at South Burlington High School several times, but when he finally plunged into higher education last year after a long interlude, he found out he wasn't as college ready as he wanted to be.
That's partly because that interlude included service in the Vermont Army National Guard (he was named Soldier of the Year in 2008) and a nine month deployment in Afghanistan.
"For a soldier, there's a culture and a way of thinking that doesn't translate into academic success," Deslauriers, 25, said recently. In the military you get used to following orders, he said, whereas in college you're expected to show some intellectual initiative without being told what to do.
Now finishing a semester at the University of Vermont after a truncated term at Middlebury College last fall, Deslauriers is getting accustomed to the academic routine. Coming out of a combat mind set, he said, he had to relearn how to study.
Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are flocking to colleges in Vermont and across the country, aided by the post 9/11 GI Bill, which pays in state tuition costs, and by the Yellow Ribbon Program, which pays a good share of their additional expenses at private schools. (At public schools, the program covers a portion of the higher tuition for out of state students.)
For some, making the cultural transition from the military to academia can be especially challenging, so some colleges have designated staff and resources to help veterans get through it.
Dave Gerns, assistant director of military and veterans services at Champlain College and a veteran himself, said veterans entering college can be somewhat akin to students from overseas.
"They're used to a different language, different clothing," he said. Suddenly they're eating in dining halls, not mess halls, and living in residence halls, not barracks.
Chris Lucier, vice president of enrollment management at UVM and an Army veteran, said veterans who arrive at college run the gamut some need no help adjusting, some need a lot, and some are in between.
As an example of the latter, he told an anecdote of a veteran at UVM who was accustomed to clear expectations and clear assignments of the military and who took seriously the word of a professor who said a lab assignment was due on Monday.
"So she worked on it all weekend long, came in Monday and turned it in," Lucier said, only to learn that the professor had extended the deadline to Wednesday at the request of other students.
"That drove her crazy," Lucier said.
Some veterans adjust to campus life more quickly than others.
"Each veteran is an individual," said Erin Elliott, who works with veterans at Burlington College. "Their benefits are different, their experiences are different. Every one is unique."
Designated servicesCommunity College of Vermont, which had more than 300 veterans enrolled this academic year, offers a one credit course designed to ease the transition to academia. It's called "Combat to Classroom" and it covers, among other things, study skills and time management.
One of the challenges many veterans face when they go back to school is the expectation of classroom participation, said Chara Vincelette Perocci, CCV's veterans resource and outreach coordinator.
"A lot of them are uncomfortable communicating in class," said Vincelette Perocci, who did a tour in Afghanistan as a member of the Vermont Army National Guard. The transition class addresses that with a capstone experience a debate on a topic chosen by the students themselves.
Studies have shown that veterans who complete transition courses like this are more likely to stay in school and graduate, Vincelette Perocci said.
"I really needed a transition course," Deslauriers said. "It was really hard to jump back into school."
UVM, which has 71 veterans enrolled receiving benefits (55 Vermonters and 16 out of staters), does not have a transition course. Nor does it have a veterans affairs office to help veterans navigate the academic and benefits maze, but change is on the way.
Last year, Vermont Legislature passed a resolution that "urges each university and college in Vermont to establish an on campus veterans affairs office." UVM's Student Government Association passed a resolution to the same effect. A recommendation that UVM create a veterans affairs office was also made by the Presidential Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.
In October, three months after taking office, President Tom Sullivan rejected that recommendation, stating that "the current model of central coordination with decentralized services is meeting the needs of our veterans ."
UVM has a website that directs veterans to various services, a Veterans Assistance Committee comprising faculty and staff and headed by Lucier, and a club for veterans. Some veterans at UVM believe that's not enough.
"We've been asking for three things," said David Westley, 40, vice president of UVM's Student Veterans Organization who finished serving in the 82nd Airborne in 2003. "A person, a place and a program."
Among the universities meeting those criteria is the University of New Hampshire, which has four staffers in an office serving 226 veterans.
Recently Lucier, taking advantage of a vacancy that permitted some staff reshuffling, posted a position for a veterans coordinator a welcome sign, from Westley's point of view.
Sullivan, who presided over a robust veterans support program in his previous position as provost at the University of Minnesota, endorsed Lucier's creation of the new position.
"I fully supported his efforts," Sullivan wrote in an email responding to questions about veterans services, "because of the alignment with our strategic goals and vision and consistency with our values."
Lucier said he expects the veterans coordinator to be not just a point person for advice and referrals, but to seek grants for veterans programs and to focus partly on recruitment.