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Posted 10:00 am
November 7, 2012

Student veterans face unique challenges transitioning to college

Striking out into the Afghanistan countryside to find the enemy was “just a job” to City College of San Francisco student and U.S. Army veteran Miles Foltz.

As president of the CCSF Veterans Alliance, Foltz helps other student veterans navigate their GI Bill benefits and shift from military to college life, but the transition is not always an easy one.

“It can be difficult,” Foltz said. “Being in classrooms full of students who are younger than you and don’t have the same experiences. It can be frustrating.”

Combat veteran college students face hurdles ranging from collecting benefits from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to coping with mental health issues and fitting in among students with very different backgrounds, according to a 2009 Auburn University study titled “Transitions: Combat Veterans as College Students.”

“It’s so much harder to be accountable,” student and U.S. Army veteran Paul Hazel said during a workshop at CCSF’s Student Veteran Day Oct. 25. Other students talked about the Army’s battle buddy system, which soldiers are paired up and held responsible for each other. The students brainstormed about starting a study buddy program through CCSF’s veterans center.

The lack of structure in college wasn’t a problem for SF State accounting major and Iraq War veteran Ian Goold, who said he got out of the military to go to college.

“The biggest thing was not being around military culture,” Goold said as he sat in the new SF State Veterans Corner in Burk Hall Room 153. “This place serves a point of refuge for that.”

Goold, who still works as a reservist, was a marine infantryman in Iraq. He described his job as “a ground pounder.”

“I occupied space and removed people who the government didn’t want occupying that space,” he said. “When you’ve worked for four years of your life and you know what it’s like to be a grunt, it’s a big realization — the difference a college degree makes.”

Of the more than 400 SF State veterans, only about 100 served in combat, according to Rogelio Manaois, SF State veterans services coordinator. Regardless of serving in combat, many student veterans report difficulty transitioning from highly structured military life to self-driven studies.

“Overall, in public colleges one of the biggest trends that we’ve seen is campuses are trying to create veteran centers, which may include spaces for veteran students to gather, like a lounge in a way, definitely a center that is a one-stop,” Manaois, who served in the military between 1989 and 1992, said. “Before the post 9/11 GI Bill, you may have had only one person on campus dealing just with the benefit processing, but not necessarily support services.”

There are currently more than 11,500 student veterans enrolled in the California State University system. The VA reported in 2009 that veterans are more likely to attend college or obtain advanced degrees than nonveterans.

“Coming here and having that background, it brings about feelings of isolation — that they’re different from the ordinary student on campus,” Manaois said. “The main difference, day-to-day, is you’re always told what to do each day in the military and you know what to expect. When you go to college, you’re put in the situation where you’re making those decisions for yourself.”

Bridget Leach, a VA mental health social worker, said she works with students on coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and issues associated with traumatic brain injury. She said the community around student veterans at CCSF can encourage those who could benefit from counseling to seek it out. Leach encouraged other students to remember that veterans are a very diverse population with a wide range of experiences.

Most veterans do not know how to respond to a common question Leach urged students to avoid: Have you killed anyone?

“That’s really not a question you want to ask someone you don’t know very well,” Leach said, echoing the Auburn study that found the question leads to a significant amount of stress. “They could have experienced some significant losses they may not have processed. By asking that question you’re bringing someone back to a time they may not want to go back to.”

Close to 50 percent of college student veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have contemplated suicide, according to the 2011 Student Veterans of America and University of Utah study, and 20 percent have planned to kill themselves. About 7 percent of all undergraduates had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, according to recent American College Health Association data.

State schools had been working to become more veteran friendly since at least 2006 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the Troops to College Task Force, but it was only in the past two years that state college campuses began to create one-stop veterans service and support centers, Manaois said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed three bills into law Sept. 21 concerning student veterans. They expand the academic credit students can claim from military experience, increase the time veterans receive priority registration and exempt veterans from nonresident tuition at California Community Colleges.

“It helps out when there are other veterans to be around,” Goold said. “It’s like a family. When some boy comes in the room and they’re a veteran, I can insult them, they can insult me, and we’re going to be friends after that.”

SF State’s VETS@SFSU club will host a new Veterans Corner grand opening Nov. 9 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in honor of Veterans Day. The new one-stop location for student veterans is located in Burk Hall rooms 153 and 155.