New Kid On Campus: Iraq Vets Adjust To College

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Mariel Sosa doesn’t seem like the reclusive type. An outreach worker at Manhattan’s Vet Center, Sosa spends her days getting to know total strangers: veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who need the services of the U.S. Department of Veterans Services (VA). Poised, well-spoken, and wry, she seems in control and at ease.

But holing-up is exactly what Sosa, 27, did after returning from her second tour in Iraq in 2005. For almost eight months, she rarely left her parents’ home in Brooklyn. “It was very difficult to get me in the car to go anywhere,” she recalls. “I just didn’t want to.”

Gradually she started to venture out. She joined the staff of the VA’s Vet Center in lower Manhattan in late 2006, and this fall, she enrolled in New York University’s graduate social work program. At the Vet Center, she’s helped plenty of other veterans adjust to campus life. Now that she’s experiencing this firsthand, Sosa, a committed student who joined the Army to earn money to pay off her undergraduate school loans, admits she’s struggling, too. “There’s a girl in class who just stares at me all the time and she says, ‘So you’re the Iraq vet right?’” Sosa says. “It’s getting old. Yeah, I went to Iraq, but … I like to dance the salsa too!”

Sosa’s experience is hardly unique. Veterans returning from active duty often struggle to readjust to civilian life. That adjustment is arguably harder on college campuses, where the independence of student life can be jarring for former soldiers accustomed to taking orders and living within the rigid structures of the military. “You’re told how to dress, what to wear, where to be and how to do everything,” Sosa says. “It’s not the case in the real world. It’s hard adjusting to that.”

Add to that the post-traumatic stress suffered by some veterans of combat or particularly stressful situations – which can trigger nightmares and “hypervigilant” behavior like sleeping with a gun under the pillow – and it can be difficult to concentrate, socialize or even summon the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. Not the best combo for a new kid on campus.

With as many as 10,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans expected to return to New York City in the next year, it’s not surprising that colleges and universities throughout the region are bracing for an influx of students with an entirely new set of “special needs.”

But CUNY, for one, is eager to woo these veterans. At present about 3,000 of the 450,000 students in CUNY’s 23-campus system are veterans. That’s enough to rank the school’s veterans population among the top 10 nationwide.

Why CUNY? Many veterans are attracted to CUNY programs that provide training for careers in law enforcement and emergency services. What’s more, CUNY’s relatively affordable tuition—just $3,000 to $4,000 a year—makes it the obvious option for students on the G.I. Bill with tight budgets.

Of course, encouraging veterans to enroll at CUNY also makes good financial sense for the school. Veterans come with a guaranteed source of tuition dollars: G.I. Bill benefits from the federal government.

Introduced after World War II and expanded in 1985, the Montgomery G.I. Bill provides former active duty soldiers, reservists and National Guard members with money to pay for education. Veterans who enroll at a college or university are entitled to about $36,000, distributed in monthly stipends, which can be used to pay college tuition or cover living expenses.

In the last year or so, CUNY has funded a host of specialized services that aim to help veterans make the transition from combat to college. Perhaps the most visible of these is a new, system-wide Web portal that helps student veterans get in touch with veterans’ groups on campus, access medical and counseling services, and set up their G.I. Bill benefits. Behind the scenes, the school has also hired new veterans’ coordinators and trauma counselors, funded clubs to bring veterans together, and set up a specialized work-study program to help student vets earn extra money to cover school and living expenses.

But while CUNY administrators tout their new veterans’ recruitment initiative, the results may not be noticeable to those not looking for them. Sarah Barminka, 24, a student majoring in occupational therapy at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, hasn’t come across any veterans in her classes or campus activities. Still, she supports CUNY’s new recruitment efforts—though she worries that veterans with emotional or physical battle scars may struggle with the pressures of college life. “I think [veterans] should be given a chance here,” Barminka said. “But I think they should have help available to them—someone with the knowledge to help them deal with their issues.”

Marissa Gamliel, 20, an anthropology major at Brooklyn College, has several friends on campus who served in Iraq, but she wasn’t aware of the school’s efforts to bring more veterans onto campus. “It’s not very apparent,” she said of CUNY’s veterans outreach efforts.

Gamliel thinks the new initiative is a good idea, though. Veterans, she noted, would probably enhance classroom discussions about politics, world events and current conflicts in the Middle East. “I don’t think it would be bad to hear about the war—I think it would be a good thing,” she said. “I would welcome the chance to know people who’ve had that experience.”

Not all CUNY campuses are created equal, however. Veterans’ programs vary widely throughout the system. Brooklyn College, which is often cited as the model for CUNY’s new initiative to recruit veterans, has a well-established veterans club that dates back to the Vietnam era. The school’s veterans’ office also provides the roughly 250 veterans on campus with specialized academic and career advising, easy access to counseling, and one-on-one help setting up G.I. Bill benefits.

But on other campuses, student veterans often rely on a single dedicated counselor, professor or financial aid staffer who happens to have a personal interest in helping veterans.

At CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Jennifer Pastor, a social sciences professor who advises the campus’s student veterans club, is that person. Last school year, Pastor – inspired by her son’s service in Iraq – was the driving force behind the student-veterans club that formed on campus. This past fall she lobbied BMCC to hire a trauma counselor for the 170 student veterans on campus. But though she’s become a dedicated advocate for this group, she’s not sure the school’s new recruiting initiative can succeed. “CUNY is not equipped to deal with this,” Pastor says. “We have 20,000 students [at BMCC] and we have less than 20 counselors on staff. None of them are trained in trauma issues, post-traumatic stress.”

Dr. Estelle Miller, who volunteered to coordinate veterans’ services at CUNY-Kingsborough Community College, also worries that the school may be in over its head. An experienced trauma counselor, Miller estimates that one-third of CUNY’s 3,000 veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress. “That number is staggering,” she says. “In terms of crisis-related trauma, I don’t think that any of the [CUNY] campuses are geared.”

Not so, says CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. Now that CUNY has made veterans’ recruitment a priority, the school is putting its money where its mouth is. “The colleges have expanded their counseling services for vets over the last few years,” Arena points out, adding that the school has earmarked an additional $ 4.2 million within its 2009 budget to expand its counseling services.

But while mental health issues like post-traumatic stress are real concerns for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many student veterans struggle with more pragmatic challenges—like paying the bills.

The G.I. Bill doesn’t go very far these days. According to current estimates, its benefits cover only about a quarter of the cost of a college education. Some states, like Wisconsin and California, have stepped in to make up the difference. “New York isn’t one of them,” the Vet Center’s Sosa says. “It’s clearly not enough. If the G.I. Bill is your only source of income, it wouldn’t be sufficient.”

For many veterans, working on the side to pay for school is the only solution. But those lucky enough to live with parents or other relatives while they’re in school say the G.I. Bill covers what’s needed. Michael Kovalik, 24, a psychology major at Brooklyn College, gave up his night job patrolling Grand Central Terminal after he moved in with his father. Without rent to pay, his monthly G.I. Bill stipend is enough to cover his tuition and living expenses. “It’s such a rich experience, and I’m so lucky to not have to do it with a second or third job,” says Kovalik, who returned from Iraq in 2004. “I see so many students who work night jobs, and they’re dead tired.”

For Kovalik, school has made all the difference in readjusting to civilian life. “When I first came out [of the military], I was very hypervigilant,” he says, referring to the fidgety, aggressive, sometimes paranoid behavior some combat veterans display. “College really helped counter all that. Instead of getting angry, I could use intellect and figure it out and calm it down.”

Kingsborough’s Estelle Miller would like to see more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experiences like Kovalik’s as they return home and pick up with their lives.

But although Miller worked hard to build Kingsborough’s veterans’ program over the last year, she is far from satisfied with the results so far. Improving veterans’ services at CUNY, she says, is a moral imperative. “We have to do better. We really have to do better by veterans,” she stresses.

Meanwhile, at BMCC Jennifer Pastor remains cautiously optimistic. “It’s a slow process. We’re trying to help [veterans], but we’re not there yet,” she says. “As they have more money in the CUNY budget, more will happen.”

– Anne Noyes Saini

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