From Soldier to Scholar: Veterans Take the College Challenge
In the fall of 2009, Flavio Mendes enrolled at Framingham State University (FSU) in Framingham, Massachusetts. Mendes was not the typical college student.
Unlike his 18-year-old classmates, the 27-year-old Sergeant had devoted eight years to the Marines and three to the National Guard, traveled to 25 countries and survived three deployments. Even so, Mendes is not all that unusual; he is one of 800,000 returning veterans adjusting to life in college.
“What’s challenging is coming back to school after having had such a long break,” Mendes tells TakePart. “I thought I was going to have a much harder time with math classes. I hadn’t done math in 10 years.”
Mendes’s transition to college went smoothly, but he knows other newly matriculating veterans who struggle.
“Some veterans find it difficult to adapt to the more laid back lifestyle of school,” he explains. “No one’s life depends on you showing up for class or not. You no longer feel responsible for millions of dollars of equipment or for other people’s lives. Some miss that higher calling and that higher sense of purpose.”
Sean Collins, a nine-year Navy veteran and brand manager for G.I. Jobs, told USA Today that veterans possess maturity, perspective and leadership ability, traits highly prized by college administrators.
“A lot of college students today, in this generation," says Mendes, "come to school for the social life and social experiences, and not so much for education and self-improvement. When veterans come to school, we understand that we are here to better ourselves and to graduate. We’re coming here with an objective, a goal, and we’re going to do what it takes to accomplish that goal.”
DOLLARS AND CENTS
In August 2009, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs implemented the Post 9-11 GI Bill which pays in-state tuition and fees for veterans who attend public colleges and universities.
Mendes was among the first wave of veterans eligible to use the new benefit. “One of my greatest challenges was making sure that whatever benefits I was entitled to were handled correctly,” he says. “Those of us from that generation had a lot of issues, and we want to help the next class coming in iron out some of the issues we experienced ourselves.”
Mendes joined the Framingham State University Veterans Association, and was recently elected incoming President for the 2011-2012 academic year.
Mendes has plans beyond helping incoming veterans navigate the complexities of benefits and financial aid: “A secondary mission of the Association is bringing awareness to the student body, faculty and staff that veterans are here, we exist, and we can contribute a different view and a different experience to the mission of the school.”
MILITARY FRIENDLY SCHOOLS
G.I. Jobs surveys 7,000 universities annually to compile a list of Military Friendly Schools—approximately 1,000 schools that offer veterans the best education, value and welcome. The ranking is based on non-financial efforts to recruit and retain veterans, as well as financial ones.
For instance, some private institutions and graduate schools participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. These schools agree to fund tuition expenses that exceed GI Bill limits, and the VA matches their contributions.
“For anyone reading this who is a student, professor, or in the education field," shares Sergeant Mendes, "if you do happen to have a veteran student in your class, welcome that person in the sense of welcoming the input they can give. They may have a different perspective than what professors or other students are used to, but they can enrich your understanding and your discussion.”
Photo: Randy Son Of Robert/Creative Commons via Flickr.