Student veterans discuss life after G.I. Bill change

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    Landon Woods knows what it means to face a life-or-death situation head on. A sniper shot him in 2005 while he was stationed in Iraq during a seven-month tour and, after being medically discharged in 2007, he is now in his final semester as a political science major. 

    Woods’ story is similar to the lives and challenges of the 300 student veterans on campus, many of whom said they have fought another kind of battle since they started their TCU careers. 

    On June 22, 2011, President Barack Obama announced 33,000 U.S. troops would return to the United States within 15 months, marking the final months of what had become an 8-year war. This sudden influx of men and women returning has brought the issue of veterans returning to civilian life into the spotlight.  Many have chosen to return to school rather than head straight into the workforce, Woods said. 

    The G.I. Bill allows veterans to attend school with substantial federal financial aid.

    Ricardo Avitia, the official for student-veteran certification, said 10,000 troops have returned from Iraq under President Obama’s orders since June, and the university’s student-veteran population has jumped from 30 to 300 in that time. With reports of 23,000 more troops returning home by the summer, the student veteran population at TCU may well increase to an even larger and more visible veteran population.  

    Most student veterans at TCU use the post-9/11 G.I. bill, which allows recipients the full cost of any public in-state college or up to $17,500 a year for a private college. Included in the post-9/11 G.I. bill is a housing allowance and stipend for purchasing textbooks and other materials. The university also participates in another facet of the G.I. bill known as the Yellow Ribbon Program, which covers the remaining unmet tuition costs for a small group of students. This is available on a first-come, first-served basis to 150 student veterans. 

    TCU joined SMU and Baylor as one of a handful of North Texas universities that support the Yellow Ribbon Program, which made TCU a more veteran-friendly school, said April Brown, former Marine and assistant director of Inclusiveness and Intercultural Services.

    “Private schools probably weren’t affordable, especially TCU, before the post-9/11 G.I. Bill was available,” Brown said. “Students saw this as an opportunity to come to TCU.”

    The university is unique among most schools because it has a Veterans’ Services Task Force and a Student Veteran Organization, but no physical Veterans Affairs (VA) Office on campus. However, Avitia, said VA offices are not common among Texas schools. 

    All schools are required to have a veteran certification official on campus, Avitia said, but most schools that claim to have a VA office have a separate physical space where veterans can visit a certification official. 

    “It’s just different from campus to campus depending on the needs of the students,” Avitia said.

    Woods, also the public relations officer of the TCU Student Veterans Organization, attended two academic institutions in Missouri and Oklahoma before enrolling at the university and said this is his first experience without a VA office. 

    He said a VA office made many issues easier to deal with, as it provided a single hub of resources that could be approached at any time. Without a VA office, veterans have to go through a number of people and steps to tackle one issue while having to deal with the pressures that come with being a nontraditional and veteran student.

    “It’s confusing [without a VA office], especially for people who have gone to a school and know what it is like to have a VA officer or a VA liaison that helps you through the process [of enrolling],” Woods said. “I came here and I went into [Avitia’s] office and expected it to be that way and he told me to go online to do things.”

    Woods said it is nice to have people who can help wade through the paperwork that comes with the university experience, especially for veterans who have a family to care for.

    TCU’s answer to this is the Veterans Services Task Force. The task force was established in spring of 2009 by the former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dr. Don Mills to provide services to student veterans and to gather information about the student veteran population at the university. Comprised of 27 members ranging from students to representatives from different institutions and offices on campus, the task force also coordinates the university’s veterans week. 

    Brown, who is also a member of the Veterans Services Task Force, said although the Student Veteran Organization is new to campus, its members were quick to voice their need for a single place or person where they could find their needed resources.

    “The purpose of having a VA liaison is that they go a little bit farther, and I don’t think any of us are calling for there to be a Veterans Office to go to,” Woods said. “I think what the veteran population is calling for is for the person who is doing that to be certified to take the extra steps to completely take care of our paper work instead of us having to do it online or be running around. That liaison would be our lifeline through the VA.” 

    The main success of the task force can be seen in this past semester’s TCU Veterans Week celebration. These events spanned from Nov. 7-11 and recognized veterans while giving the university’s student veteran population visibility that they said created a welcoming atmosphere for them on campus. 

    As Brown and Avitia said, services for student veterans have increased with the student veteran population. Founded by task force member and student veteran Carl Castillo, the Student Veteran Organization (SVO) is another way for veterans, dependents and others to connect with one another and aid in the transition from veteran to civilian student. As an official TCU organization on OrgSync, the club is comprised of more than 120 members. 

    Teresa Montoya, a 25-year-old junior psychology major and student veteran, said the SVO played a major role in her transition to student life at TCU. 

    “I was involved with the Student Veteran Organization immediately because everyone [I spoke to] pushed it,” Montoya said. “It was just a place to hang out at first. To me, that was a great transition because we were able to relate our experiences in the military and our experiences here with other students.”

    The task force and SVO are TCU’s only resources specifically for student veterans on campus. Both groups acknowledge the availability of a network of veterans for student veterans. Both Brown and Woods said most student veterans usually prefer to speak to one another when they are having trouble and rely on one another for support. She also said that there are a small percentage of veterans who choose not to join either organization and generally keep to themselves. 

    SVO regularly makes use of a room on the fourth floor of Scharbauer Hall as a makeshift “veterans lounge.” Though Brown said a room like this would usually be found in a student union at other colleges or universities, she said the Brown-Lupton University Union is not as centrally located as Scharbauer, especially for students who commute or park around University Drive and the commuter lots. 

    Secluded from the rest of the classrooms and offices in Scharbauer, the lounge is stocked with coffee and light snacks, along with tables, chairs and study space. Student veterans are usually found there in their free time or between classes, but cannot occupy the space exclusively since they share it with history classes that also use the space.

    “[The lounge] is a good outlet,” Montoya said. “I went there just to get away from the rest of the aspect of normal days and younger students with different mindsets. When I go [to the lounge], it’s like we all have almost the same mindset, so it’s nice to get away.”

    Since many of them are older than their fellow TCU students, student veterans said they experience the university not only as veterans, but also as nontraditional students. 

    Woods said he’s not sure the university’s veterans programs can accommodate this nontraditional experience, especially if a student veteran needs emotional support.  

    Usually when student veterans need counseling, Woos said, they seek the help of a VA liaison who refers the student to the right resources. He felt the veteran’s task force at TCU is not capable of doing that.

    Sophomore mathematics major Sgt. Karl Wood, a 23-year-old student veteran, said he has not felt alienated in a class or on campus. Though he is a commuter and started out as a 22-year-old freshman, Wood said the differences arose mainly because other students could not relate with the experiences he had while in the service. 

    Woods and Montoya said they have not necessarily felt singled out in class unless the issue of age is brought up. Montoya said, as a female, she also deals with some issues that male veterans have not experienced.

    “When I was in the Marine Corps, I was a postal clerk. We handled the mail,” Montoya said. “I disliked that sometimes students would ask me if I was in combat and I’m like, ‘don’t you know about the law?’ There’s a law that women cannot be on the front line, so it’s rare that women would even go in combat.”

    Woods said that the majority of student veterans ultimately look to enter the workforce as soon as possible to support themselves or their families. Consequently, many student veterans look to more “professional” degrees in the nursing program or business school. However, he notes many veterans, like other students, choose to go into the liberal arts and study what interests them.

    Some veterans have not attended an academic institution in more than 10 years. They were enlisted in the middle of college or immediately after high school and just now return to school, Brown and Avitia said. This may present a problem with study habits, but Montoya said student veterans are able to handle any problem that arises with the resources available, whether it is trouble with re-learning formal writing or simply just how to study. 

    Wood said the TCU experience is difficult for him and most other student veterans because of the university’s campus culture and its students’ priorities.  

    “I have to say my college experience has been hindered by the things in life that I have already experienced,” Wood said. “I am more mature and find it harder to immerse myself in the stereotypical college lifestyle. I am not in a fraternity, I don’t go to college parties and I rarely attend sporting events. I do intend to have a successful career, and I plan on working as hard as I need to so that I can earn as much money as possible in a field that I love, and obviously support a family someday.” 

    Brown and Avitia’s work demonstrates the university’s current efforts to provide for the student veteran demographic on campus. With two organizations currently a part of the community and participation and membership in those organizations increasing, student veterans seem to be generally satisfied with their experiences at TCU, though the lack of a VA office is a still a significant issue, they said. 

    “I think the veteran’s task force has good intent,” Woods said. “I think it is there for a good reason whenever it started and we appreciate everything that they do for us, but right now I think the problem lies in that we’re in the discovery phase.”