New GI Bill brings students, challenges

With the GI Bill now covering full tuition and more, the number of veterans attending college this fall is expected to jump 30 percent from last year, to nearly half a million. The change has many universities looking for ways to ease the transition from combat to the classroom.

Vets already in school have run into problems that include campus bureaucracy, crowds that can trigger alarm instincts honed by war, and fellow students who don’t understand their battlefield experiences.

In response, colleges across the country are offering veterans-only classes, adding counselors, and streamlining the application and financial aid process.

Under the new GI Bill expanded by Congress last year, the number of military veterans either starting or continuing their studies this fall is expected to top 460,000, up from 354,000 last autumn, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many veterans will encounter a classroom culture shock that could leave them agitated.

Ask Colin Closs, a former Fort Campbell, Ky., soldier studying at Cleveland State University in Ohio, what bothers him most about how veterans are treated on campus, and he lists strange and sometimes rude questions people have asked: “Was it hot?” “Were you always in a tent?” “Did you ever kill anybody?”

Closs benefited this past school year from a program at Cleveland State started in 2007 by chemistry professor John Schupp to form some freshman-level classes with all veterans. Schupp’s idea is to keep the military men and women together as a unit, so they can support and motivate each other.

The University of Arizona adopted his program last year, and schools in at least a dozen states are working on programs modeled on Cleveland State.

Closs said after leaving the military, he had trouble interacting with people who don’t understand his wartime experiences. But when he takes classes with other veterans, they can talk about problems they might have, whether it’s educational or personal.

“It’s like the VFW hall without the alcohol,” Closs said.

The University of West Florida in Pensacola, not far from Eglin Air Force Base, is adding counselors to help service members with post traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems, but administrators recognize that veterans don’t want to be categorized as disabled.

“They feel like they are ostracized, or there’s a stigma attached, so how we handle that is getting a lot of scrutiny,” said Marc Churchwell, the school’s military education program coordinator.

Churchwell, who is retired from the Navy, said his own experience with the previous GI Bill made him want to make the process easier for the next generation of men and women in the military.

“It was very frustrating for me, to the point I was ready to quit,” Churchwell said. “My goal is for those people to come to me, so they don’t have to deal with it.”

The University of California at Los Angeles has short orientation sessions for veterans and is creating an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans readjustment group in the fall.

Matthew Nichols, a psychologist who just joined UCLA’s counseling and psychological services after working for the VA, said he’s hopeful that students will feel more comfortable asking for help on a college campus versus walking into a veterans hospital.

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