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Special Class Helps Soldiers Become Successful Students

  • Lonny Shavelson

Since World War II, a government aid program known as the GI Bill has helped millions of returning veterans fund their college educations. But making the transition from military to student life has never been easy. American colleges and universities are struggling to meet the needs of a new generation of vets from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reporter Lonny Shavelson has more.

Tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, suddenly civilians after combat tours, are showing up for college classes this semester. They're older than the typical college freshman, and they have some unique adjustment issues.

Specialist Amanda Taylor Weber, who served with the Army National Guard as an engineer in Iraq, has experienced a great deal of anxiety since she's been home.

"I don't like to be around a lot of people," she explains.

Sergeant Terry Boyd, a counterterrorism expert in Iraq, feels the same way.

"I got mild traumatic brain injuries. I've had children blow themselves up in front of me. I've had grown men try to kill me," Boyd says. "Come back now, I don't like civilians that much, you know. I damn sometimes don't like being around other veterans 'cause I'm sick of stories."

Specialist Michael Caldwell was in Iraq as a combat engineer, and now that he's home, he says he feels lost.

"I was used to the regular schedule of getting up, going to chow, making sure your weapons are working properly. But being home, it's just like I have no idea what I'm doing," he says.

'We're Going to Walk You Through Every Step'

Caldwell, Boyd and Taylor are enrolled at Sierra Community College in northern California. They're in a class with 34 other veterans called Boots to Books. It's designed specifically for troops returning to school - to help with everything from writing to study skills and money management.

The professor, Catherine Morris, is an ex-Marine who went back to school and got her master's degree in counseling. She recognizes the veterans' fundamental dilemma in leaving the military and starting college.

"You can't call your sergeant to go and help you get through this. You are completely on your own," she says. "I've heard so many times from veterans that they are more intimidated and more afraid of going to college than they ever were in combat."

That makes sense to Michael Caldwell, and he thinks he knows why.

"Everybody in your platoon, you're all one single individual unit working together," he says. "And when you're a civilian and you're in school, it's everybody's competing for themselves. And it's tough when you don't have that kind of support behind you, like if you were down or something, you had somebody to talk to."

One solution, says Morris, is to make sure the vets on campus find each other. That's why she started the Boots to Books course here.

"We say, 'You know what? No, you're not on your own. It's a little difficult, but we're going to walk you through every step,'" she says.

Expanded GI Benefits May Bring More Veterans to Campuses

But walking even a few vets through starting college is no small task, and it doesn't come cheap. There are 350 veterans at Sierra College, where Morris is a full-time veterans' counselor. That's very unusual. At most other schools across the country, it's at best a part-time job for someone in the financial aid office with no specific training in working with veterans. Morris points out that fewer than 10 of the 110 community colleges in California employ a veterans counselor who has any background or knowledge of combat stress injuries and the GI Bill.

About 450,000 vets are in schools nationwide, about half at community colleges. With expanded benefits in a new GI Bill coming up, that population is expected to increase - although nobody knows by how much.

As colleges look for the best ways to support these new students, the most important one may be just helping them find each other on campus and providing a room to get together.

As he leaves his first Boots to Books class, Terry Boyd says it's still hard for him to be around so many people on campus, but he's getting started.

"I'm liking the people I'm around right now," he admits with a grin. "People that's in this room, you know. We stick up for each other. We'll be all right."

A handful of other community colleges around the country have also started up specific classes for incoming vets. The University of California, Berkeley is now offering a special course - teaching veterans how to find academic mentors, prepare for exams and mostly how to negotiate long class and study hours without losing their recently regained family and personal lives.

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