Veterans Returning To College To Improve Job Chances

November 12, 2012 at 9:56 am
Published: Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 7:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 7:56 p.m.

There are principles that don’t change from the battle field to the classroom, said U.S. Army Veteran Chris Taggart.

“I see it as a mission,” he said. “There are a set of steps you have to follow to reach success.”

Taggart served 25 years in the U.S. Army, Army Reserve and National Guard. At age 52, he now is seeking an interdisciplinary studies degree from University of South Carolina Upstate. He is one of hundreds of thousands of military veterans who are searching for degrees as a pathway to success.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan conclude and veterans are aided by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the number of military-affiliated students enrolled at institutions of higher education has soared. From 2009, the first year the Post-9/11 GI Bill was available, to 2011 the number of veterans receiving education benefits increased by about 360,000.

When Chris McElwee was accepted to Penn State, he started his freshman year without a major. He tried graphic design, then marketing, then business administration. After two years, he was no closer to knowing what he wanted to do.

Having always considered military service, he decided to go in a new direction.

“It is a good feeling that I took a financial burden off of my parents even though they were willing to foot the bill,” McElwee said in an email interview. “Joining the United States Air Force was my best decision ever. It helped settle me down, and have focus and goals to achieve.”

In June 2011, after four years as a medic at Andrews Air Force Base, McElwee, originally from Bloomsberg, Pa., enrolled at University of South Carolina Upstate, where he is working on a business degree. He plans to graduate in the fall of 2013.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill is available to any member of the military who had more than 90 days of aggregate service after Sept. 10, 2001, or a service-related discharge after 30 days. An honorable discharge is required. The GI Bill provides tuition and fee payment directly to the university. It fully funds in-state public college expenses, and is capped for private institutions at $18,077. For public out-of-state institutions, the GI Bill will fund up to the in-state tuition. A housing allowance of about $1,100 per month and a stipend for books and supplies also is provided.

Joshua Thrailkill of Charlotte, N.C., spent three years working on a pre-law degree at Tulane University in New Orleans before he decided it wasn’t for him. He went to work for a family business, but decided that wasn’t right either.

At the advice of his U.S. Army veteran father, Thrailkill decided in 2004 to join the U.S. Air Force, where he became an airborne battle manager and spent six years on active duty and two years on inactive duty. He was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and South America. He came out knowing he wanted to be a training specialist and went to work for Nissan as a corporate trainer for three years. He liked the job and the pay.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t go back to school now, I’m not going to do it,’” Thrailkill said. “There are a lot of jobs I knew I was qualified for, and I felt like not having a bachelor’s degree was holding me back. I didn’t want one of these days to be 40 or 50 and have someone say we want to promote from within, but you don’t have the qualifications we’re looking for.”

Earlier this year, Thrailkill started classes full time at USC Upstate, where he is working on a degree in communications.

In his return to school, Thrailkill said the biggest difference is that, at 28, he’s 10 years older than the freshmen.

“I remember having an 8 a.m. class at 18 years old, and I just wasn’t doing it,” Thrailkill said. “Now, if I don’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. and run four miles it’s a good day.”

Many veterans who interrupted their schooling to serve in the military said they find they are more focused and dedicated than they were in the past, but they face challenges in and out of the classroom.

Student veterans are likely to have more living expenses than their younger classmates. Thrailkill said he has a mortgage payment, and McElwee said he is working a part-time job while in school to pay a car payment and household expenses.

The very active, hands-on training he received in the military has also made adapting to a school environment difficult, McElwee said.

“I often feel more capable than my grade standing would lead someone to believe. The learning simply through books in the university environment is not always the best way in my opinion,” he said. “It doesn’t test competence; rather it simply shows memorization skills, oftentimes.”

Schools have scrambled to keep up with the influx of a unique group of nontraditional students. According to a July survey of nearly 700 institutions of higher learning by the American Council on Education, Soldier to Student II, 62 percent of colleges and universities provide services specifically for veterans, and 71 percent have programs for veterans in their long-term plan. Both those statistics were at 57 percent in 2009.

The needs of veterans vary widely. They include social opportunities, help accessing community-based and government-based benefits, housing, child care, flexible degree programs and diverse learning opportunities, said Meg Mitcham, director of veterans programs for ACE.

“A support program for veterans on one campus might look very different from a veterans support program on another campus, and they are both very successful,” Mitcham said.

Determining the right program for a school is about identifying the needs of the unique veteran community on campus.

“We very much encourage schools to access those veteran voices throughout this process,” she said.

Scott Linnell of Greer was a student at Purdue University and signed up for the military shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. After being called for active duty and having his education interrupted multiple times, Linnell said he decided to get an education through the Army and became a licensed practical nurse, a career field he could practice in and out of the Army, but he still wanted a bachelor’s degree. After a year-long deployment in Kuwait, Linnell said he was guaranteed at least a year on inactive duty and enrolled at USC Upstate for the Fall 2012 semester.

Only a few months into classes, Linnell said he has encountered several challenges transitioning from a soldier to a civilian student.

“(In the Army) you spend eight hours per day in the classroom. It’s very structured and regimented, so you have no opportunity to do anything you aren’t supposed to,” he said. “Here, I can wake up whenever I want.”

Linnell said the standards were higher and the tempo of daily life was faster in the Army. Though he is still learning to adjust, Linnell said the key for veteran students is remembering what they were taught in the military and applying it to civilian life — build a support structure, act independently and work to better yourself.

“Maintain what we’ve already learned, I guess. That and take a breath,” Linnell said.

USC Upstate does not specifically track students with military affiliation, so the precise number is unknown, but according to spokeswoman Tammy Whaley, at least 5 percent of USC Upstate’s students are registered through the school’s veteran’s affairs office, and they receive military-related tuition reimbursement.

Erik Koenig, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and an Upstate senior studying information management systems, said he chose USC Upstate because of its military-friendly atmosphere. He said he knew he wanted to go to a four-year school, and USC Upstate offers a range of opportunities through its affiliation with the state university. It also was close to his Greenville home. The National Guard Armory right next to the campus, the availability of the ROTC program and a veterans’ affairs coordinator made the decision more attractive.

With the demands of being a reservist, an ROTC commander, full-time student and a husband, Koenig said the most important thing schools need to keep in mind if they want to cater to military students is flexibility.

“For me, balancing the amount of stuff going on all the time has been the most difficult,” he said.

Koenig said he has taken advantage of night courses, satellite campuses and online course offerings.

Awareness that not all college students are the same is the key to ensuring the success of student veterans, several of those interviewed said.

“We sacrificed a good portion of our life to protect our freedom and civil liberties, and we just want to re-enter society. We don’t want special treatment, but there are certain considerations,” Linnell said. “We’re hard-charging and ready to go.”