Like many college freshmen, Garrett Lee walked onto John Carroll University’s campus a few short months ago, nervous and filled with uncertainty. He asked himself questions such as, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I here?”
Unlike most college freshmen, though, Lee had just turned 23 years old and had not written a paper or solved a math problem in almost five years. Instead, he had split that time living in Turkey, England and Afghanistan coordinating fuel refills for planes in the Air Force. Lee has a long family history of military service as his father, both of his grandfathers and several uncles had served. His decision to join the military was cemented on Sept. 11, 2001, a day he vividly remembers.
With one year left in his deployment, Lee was then faced with the decision whether or not to reenlist. While he is proud to have served in the Air Force, Lee felt it was time to get an education and see what else he could offer to the world.
“War is hell – I should see what else is out there,” he said of his decision.
Lee is not the only veteran adjusting from the military to life as a student. JCU has a steadily growing number of veterans enrolling. In 2011, there were only eight student veterans on campus, and as of fall 2013 that number has gone up to 58 students, with more veterans signed up for both spring and fall 2014 semesters.
The main reason behind this large increase in student veterans is the creation of the post 9/11 G.I. Bill.
Since 1947, the G.I. Bill had been assisting former military in attending college, but up until 2009 the bill was not keeping up with the costs of higher education. The post 9/11 G.I. Bill was designed to cover the tuition of most state schools anywhere in the country, providing a maximum of $19,198.31 per year for qualifying veterans. This amount does appear to exclude most private universities, so the Veteran’s Administration added the Yellow Ribbon program in which each college can choose to opt into, which JCU decided to do. As a result of this, JCU student veterans receive an additional $7,640.85 per year. JCU has also established the Patriot Award that will match the amount of the Yellow Ribbon award for each student. In total, this means every qualifying veteran at JCU receives $34,480.00 each year for a total of four years, essentially covering the cost of tuition.
Retired Lt. Col. Eric Patterson, the director of veteran’s affairs in JCU’s Veterans’ Program, was instrumental in the University’s decision to go forth with the Yellow Ribbon program. After starting at JCU in 2007 as a professor of military science and then returning to work after a year of deployment in February 2011, Patterson felt the University would be a great place for veterans to continue their education.
“I took what was already the essence of what it is to be part of the John Carroll community – that sense of family, caring and I ran that through the magnifying lens and it gave me the vision of how all-encompassing our student veteran program needed to be,” he said.
The average student veteran at JCU is 26 years old, male and married with one or two children. They have typically been deployed overseas at least twice within a three to four year period. Only four of the 58 student veterans are female.
Patterson, along with several other members of the JCU community, have helped create a veterans program that attempts to create as smooth of a transition as possible from military to college life. The program incorporates a number of different elements, including granting academic credit for previous military training, something that had not been done in the past. The average veteran will receive approximately 8-12 credits from previous experience, most often in the subjects of military science, physical education, logistics and physics.
The veterans program also includes an add-on session for orientation in which students can meet their fellow veterans on campus, a free commuter meal plan and the option of renting a Fairmount Circle apartment at a reduced rate.
“This could be awkward for them – they’re used to a totally different daily structure and they could still be trying to process any traumatic experiences they may have had while deployed,” Patterson explained.
In the military, an individual’s day is planned out for them from the moment they wake up until they are excused and allowed to leave. In college, the student makes up his or her own schedule.
Krysta Kurzynski, assistant director of veterans affairs, helps veterans adjust to their new civilian life as a student. She is available to all veterans if they need counseling, runs several workshops during the year on different topics for the students and teaches a newly designed course that teaches new veterans on campus how to adjust to a less-structured schedule and be successful in the classroom after a long absence from school.
Kurzynski is concerned with creating an environment in which the student veteran can succeed in and one that will utilize the G.I. Bill benefits he or she has earned. While the veteran can use their G.I. Bill at any point, as well as take time off in between semesters, these benefits can only be used once so it is essential that the student chooses a major early on that will best suit his or her skill set.
Other faculty have partnered up with the Veterans Affairs office in order to design other courses directed towards student veteran personal experiences. One such course, Special Topics in International Relations, is only open to student veterans and honors students, and explores different issues in national security in which the veterans have a unique perspective.
Jennifer Ziemke, who teaches the course, said, “It’s always a pleasure to engage extremely intelligent students in class, and the veteran students I have had in class have been some of the very best that I have encountered over the course of my career. I genuinely enjoy a rigorous and friendly debate in class, and have learned so much from these students. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put into words just how wonderful my International Security course is this semester, and I’m grateful to both the veterans and the non-veterans in the course for creating something very special this term”.
Paul Canis, who teaches a course about Greek philosophy focusing on the role and value of the warrior in society, has also aimed his class at veterans.
“These returning vets are another, and I think quite exceptional, avenue through which JCU keeps all students on their toes, open to the real world, invested, and not just passive observers of history,” Canis said.
While several professors recognize the value of having these students in their class, some veterans have struggled in school.
“It was really hard at first,” Lee said. “I used to say college will be easy. I am in the military; I can do anything. Then I got into Religion 101. Moses, who is that? But I squeaked out with a B.”
While serving, Lee often saw different men discharge from the military and then come right back soon after, as they could not handle the transition back to school. He understood that pressure when returning to school himself after not having done academic work for several years.
“In England, I’m coordinating aircraft refueling over the Atlantic Ocean and here I’m getting C’s,” he said.
Similar to Lee, junior Mike Snitzer also struggled in the classroom and in adjusting to civilian life after returning from active duty. Snitzer, 28, is a communication major and is married with two children. He served in the Army for five years and was deployed twice, once to Iraq and once to South Korea. In the army, Snitzer said that he was the guy sitting on top of the Hum-V with a 50-caliber machine gun ready to neutralize any possible threat. He finished up his service while in South Korea and then was sitting in a classroom at Cuyahoga Community College only four days later.
Snitzer said that at Tri-C he felt out of place and that his teachers and peers were unsure of what to do with him. He would arrive to class 15 minutes early every day and get frustrated when other students wandered in late. Transferring to JCU in the spring of 2012 has helped him adjust to this new way of life.
“I still keep that part of the military in me – that high discipline, that high motivation,” Snitzer said. “JCU has helped me bring a method to the madness, helped me adapt to that change. The most important thing is that now I have the tools, the confidence to inflict the change myself.”
He is especially grateful to Kurzynski for recognizing the skills that he already possessed, and teaching him how to adapt those skills to a career. He also credits the JCU liberal arts education in helping him learn how to support his opinions and making him question everything.
Snitzer admits, though, that another way he has struggled in college has been in relating to his fellow students.
“As a vet, there’s no way to describe listening to an 18-year-old kid who went on vacation to Paris with his parents tell you about the world, but that’s just where they are in their lives – my life has led me to different places, but I still try to connect and listen to them,” Snitzer said.
One way Snitzer connects to other students on campus is through the Student Veterans Club. He said this club has allowed him to feel more a part of a community as he can relate to his fellow veterans in ways no one else will understand.
In April, the Student Veterans’ Club held a barbeque that raised $1,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. The club also participated and raised money for Relay for Life and ran the Military Fitness Challenge on the quad a few weeks ago.
Sophomore Savio Fernandes has quite a unique story compared to other student veterans. Born in Bombay, India and raised in Qatar, Fernandes moved to Cleveland at the age of 17 after becoming fascinated with American culture through watching U.S. television shows. He moved in with a Catholic priest, a friend of his family, and attended St. Peter Chanel high school. In 2008, he enlisted in the Marines. Three months later, he went off to boot camp.
While Fernandes was never deployed, he spent time in South Carolina and North Carolina, and was finally stationed at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. When he finished his duty, he returned to Cleveland and tried working for a bit. After he was let go at his job, his friend’s parents talked him into going to JCU, where he has chosen to major in marketing. Through attending high school, college and serving in the Marines, Fernandes has fallen in love with the United States.
“The greatest honor that I could do for this country before I became a citizen is to serve because then I feel that then I would have earned this citizenship,” said Fernandes, who gained his U.S. citizenship in 2010.
Kurzysnki is especially concerned with raising awareness on campus about the best way to treat these veteran students.
Kurzynski said, “While it’s great that students are interested in hearing from our student veterans, it’s not appropriate to ask the question, which all of them have been asked at least once, ‘Have you killed anybody?’ Rather you could ask one of these questions: ‘What branch of the military did you serve in? What did you do while serving?’ or ‘Did you deploy anywhere?’”