Gulf War Veteran Breaks the Glass Ceiling for Female Soldiers Dreaming of College

Eighty-eight percent of veterans drop out of college within one year. Esther Eve Purvis-Allen is working to change that.
Esther Eve Purvis-Allen is creating programs to help male and female veterans succeed in college after serving in the military. (Photo c/o Esther Eve Purvis-Allen)
Sep 3, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

When Esther Eve Purvis-Allen returned to the States after working with hazardous materials for the U.S. Air Force in England, she was eager to fulfill her dreams of being the first woman in her family to receive a degree in advanced education.

She felt that joining the military and serving in the Gulf War would help her achieve this goal by later paying for her education with the GI Bill.

At first, it seemed like this plan would work. After one year studying computer information systems at a college in Utah, Purvis-Allen was offered a scholarship to Idaho State University. But completing her degree turned out to be a tremendous struggle.

More: War to College: Student Vet Helps Soldiers Make the Transition

“I started getting sick,” she says, adding that the work she did with hazardous materials left her with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and some cognitive loss. She also struggled with major depression resulting from sexual harassment she experienced daily in the military. The school, she says, had no programs to help her with her specific military issues. “I was really isolated. I just didn’t feel supported.”

She managed to complete a double bachelor’s but her dream to receive a highly advanced degree evaporated. Barely completing her master’s degree in education, Purvis-Allen—by then a single mother of four children—dropped out of her doctorate program and moved to California in 2004.

Twenty years after Purvis-Allen first returned home from war, she is now working as a staunch advocate for female veterans in Oakland, Ca. Despite the passage of time, an influx of fresh veterans, and a new G.I. Bill, Purvis-Allen, 44, says college-bound vets are still struggling with the same issues she struggled with years ago.

According to an NBC News article in July: “Among the approximately 800,000 military veterans now attending U.S. colleges, an estimated 88 percent drop out of school during their first year and only 3 percent graduate, according a report forwarded by the University of Colorado Denver, citing a March 22, 2012 study by the Colorado Workforce Development Council.”

Financial plans, counseling and supportive programs that recognize military training are too few and far between. “Higher education needs to level the playing field and make it more accessible for vets,” Purvis-Allen says. “There has to be a shift in higher education that comes to terms with the new population.”

The “new population” is the estimated 2.4 million veterans who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom desire to receive an education thanks to the post-911 G.I. Bill. According to the 2009 Lumina Foundation for Education report, From Soldier to Student: Easing the Transition of Service Members on Campus, approximately 56 percent of the 763 higher ed institutions polled at that time had programs geared to vets—and 60 percent were planning to add more:

Institutions have not faced such a significant influx of veteran students on campus since World War II. Military personnel and veterans will be a tremendous asset to higher education, as they have been in the past, but they have needs that are distinct from other students. As campuses prepare to welcome these students, it is important for administrators to take stock of their programs and services.

Part of Purvis-Allen’s job as an advocate is to help vets track down sympathetic school programs and understanding administrators (both are most often found in smaller colleges, she says, rather than mainstream ones) that will address their specific issues. PTSD is a big one: 11 to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are afflicted. “A lot of us don’t like to be in enclosed areas, like during GRE testing,” she says. “Therefore, we have testing anxiety. A test score is not what makes a scholar. They need to look at the whole person.”

We are much more than just people marching in uniforms; we are not a war machine.

Purvis-Allen says she is finally ready to complete her long-desired doctorate degree herself. “I have created a couple vet programs and leadership programs, and I’m working on a book and putting together a workshop [for CalVets women's conference] in October,” she says. “These are the things that made me realize I need to go back to school.”

She is planning to apply to several California schools, including Stanford, and hopes to get an advanced degree in education leadership with a policy emphasis. “I want to work further in policy that will make the education process for vets and their families a lot easier,” Purvis-Allen says. “We have another glass ceiling we need to break through on how society looks at veterans. We are much more than just people marching in uniforms; we are not a war machine.”

Do you think there needs to be better programs that help veteran pursue a higher education? Share your thoughts in comments.

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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