From sergeant to student: Colleges step up efforts to ensure veteran success  

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Members of the DeVry University’s Military Resource Club, which is a chapter of the Student Veterans of America, proudly display their organization’s flag.

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The transition from military to civilian life, though often a happy turning point, poses special challenges for veterans who have had their formal educations interrupted by military service.

Local college leaders say veterans face hurdles to getting restarted in higher education because they are no longer traditional college age, have life experiences unimaginable to many civilians and may not have seen the inside of a classroom for years.

“Just navigating the VA (federal Veteran’s Affairs) is an obstacle to many returning students, and the VA certainly doesn’t have all of the answers,’’ said Paul Knudston, himself a veteran who serves as director of armed services relations at National Louis University.

So NLU, along with many other private and public institutions in Illinois, are finding ways to become “military friendly” schools. “We are here to help in any capacity a vet needs,’’ Knudston said. “We want to move aside the obstacles to getting an education that leads to meaningful employment,” Knudston said. “Once a vet gets past the common pride issue that makes him or her think they can go it alone, we step in to help them navigate the waters.’’

DeVry University’s main campus in Addison also is considered a leader in assisting veterans. “From the moment a vet chooses to attend here, they have a single point of contact—that’s me’’ said fellow veteran Scott Stratton, military liaison and senior executive adviser. “I know it can be tough not to be the sergeant anymore.’’

Stratton said that because DeVry is a relatively small school, the administration is open to trying out new services and getting immediate feedback. For example, twice a month the same representative from a health outreach office of the VA visits campus and can meet one-on-one with students to address benefits issues and offer information. ‘This was born out of feedback from students who said they didn’t have time to travel to a VA office and wait in long lines.”

DeVry’s Stratton pointed out all colleges grant degrees, but veterans might want to ask themselves if a school is equipped to meet their unique educational challenges as well.

Schools that emphasize reaching adult learners also are boosting their services for vets as they have a lot of experience with older students. At Benedictine University, veterans get coaching on how to get the most out of their Post 9/11 GI benefits and getting college credit for their applicable military training. “We realize the troops are drawing down, and we are prepared,’’ said Linda Owens, associate dean for student development.

In tandem with initiatives from school administration, many veterans are benefiting from membership in the Student Veterans of America (SVA), which gives vets an easy way to meet and support each other. The group has its roots in the 2007 social media campaigns that advocated for passage of the Post 9/11 educational benefits bill. Today the group has established more than 900 chapters across the country.

“Pushing for passage of the bill gave the students cohesion,’’ said Rodrigo Garcia, a member of the group’s board of directors. “From there, students realized they could get a lot of support from people who have walked the same walk.’’

Garcia said today the chapters continue to press for more vet-friendly policies, which include ensuring that students called up to their reserve units don’t lose academic credits or tuition benefits because of their active status. He also pointed to programs that help educate faculty about veteran’s learning styles and work to dispel some societal myths. “It seems the public looks at the veteran as either a hero or a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder,’’ Garcia said. “But veterans are just a microcosm of the society around them. Only a small number of veterans have disabling emotional problems,’’ he said.

Now that the SVA has about five years of history behind it, the group is building an alumnae network to help students learn some of the soft skills necessary to land a job and build a career. “We’re excited that former SVA members now are interested in giving back,’’ Garcia said. “The SVA is really a wide fraternal and academic backstop.’’

Rick O’Hara is the president of the DeVry Military Resource Club, which is a chapter of the SVA. The 34-year-old former Marine is pursuing a bachelor of science in technical management, and already holds certificates in welding and HVAC. He is proud of his chapter’s service projects that have benefited the residents of Addison and well as its participation in the local Veterans Day parade.

“Right away I realized that DeVry knew what it meant to be a veteran and a student,’’ O’Hara said. “The classes are divided into eight-week accelerated schedules that mean you can finish more quickly.’’

DeVry’s club has a lounge and computer lab, so there are spaces to socialize and quiet aeras to get academic help. “You have people in school now who haven’t opened a math book in 10 years. Now that’s a challenge,’’ O’Hara said.

O’Hara said the easy access to his veteran peers is so important because “these people have walked in your shoes.’’ He observed that club that regularly draws 40 veterans to meetings and activities serves as a mini USO. “This group at DeVry helps extend some of

that brotherhood and camaraderie that a lot of vets miss.’’