- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

School Spirit

Networking with student veterans helps maintain an esprit de corps on campus

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: MBM Food Service

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If I had to make my entrance into Corporate America today, the main assets I used to get a job without the benefit of a college degree - what my first editor described as “gumption” and “natural ability” - probably wouldn’t be enough.

What’s more, “experience,” while valued, still requires additional skills and even a diploma, which is exactly what Armando Davila discovered during his job hunt following his transition out of the military.

Veterans Helping Veterans

Originally from The Dalles, Ore., Davila served in the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry from 2001 to 2005. He completed two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. After being discharged, he worked a number of different jobs, but none of them promised a fulfilling career. It was when he began pursuing more career-oriented positions that he learned his military experience alone wasn’t enough for those who were doing the hiring.

“Military experience was looked at in high regard, but for most of the jobs that I applied for, they weren’t looking at it as being equivalent to a four-year degree,” he recounts, admitting that this was a great source of frustration. “I would think, ‘If I were looking to hire somebody with these experiences, I would know that they’ve definitely been tested - their leadership has been tested, their communication skills have been tested, everything.’ [But after a while] I thought, ‘I guess this is not good enough. I’ve got to get an education.’” In September 2009, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT)in Klamath Falls.

It was in a writing class that Davila met Joseph Miranda. Miranda, a native of Klamath Falls, had served in the Marine Corps as an F-18 airframe and hydraulics mechanic from 2004 to 2009. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005, and then to several countries overseas in 2007. Like Davila, in September 2009 he started at Oregon Tech, where he was also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering - this time, in renewable energy. He enrolled straight out of the military, describing the decision as a “no-brainer” for him.

“I think, for a lot of people in this day and age, it’s harder and harder to find jobs if you don’t have a college degree. You almost need a college degree just to get your foot in the door anywhere - even to get an interview,” he says.

Benefits of the G.I. Bill

What made his decision to enroll even easier was that he was benefiting from the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

“Sometimes there are little kinks in the system here and there with the V.A., but in general, they do a good job. You get all of your tuition paid for, they give you money for books and other student fees, and you get a monthly housing allowance that’s based on the location that you live in. So they really take care of you to the point where it actually makes it really easy, from a monetary sense, to transition from the military and go straight to school.”

Still, Chris Maples, president of OIT and a veteran himself, warns against solely relying on the G.I. Bill in favor of looking at other opportunities, such as scholarships and fellowships.

“Look very closely at the total cost of college - and that’s not just tuition and fees, but it’s books, room, board, living, and the cost of living in the place where you’re going to school,” he advises. “A lot of places will talk about their tuition and have as many as 40 or more different fees on top of all the tuition.” Depending on geography, cost of living can differ dramatically, and you also need to decide whether you want to live on campus or not.

Davila eventually changed over to OIT’s communications program, but his friendship with Miranda, born out of that writing class, resulted in the official establishment of the Oregon Tech Veterans Association (OVA). Miranda relays that OIT had a veterans’ club beforehand, on and off, but it would gradually die off as those who established it graduated. Under Davila and Miranda’s leadership, the OVA’s beginnings were humble, basically consisting of a lounge where student veterans could hang out. But as of press time, it had celebrated its first full year as an official program that is recognized by the Oregon University System (OUS), which means it’s allotted an annual budget. Now, along with the lounge, the OVA boasts actual offices where student veterans may come to get on the Internet, check emails and do homework. It even has its own library of textbooks.

Education Tools for Veterans

“A lot of the veterans aren’t paying for books, really, because we get them paid for by the G.I. Bill,” Miranda explains. “When we’re done using our books, instead of selling them back, we just leave them in the vets’ lounge and when other vets come in, or anyone on campus, we open it up and let them check out a book for the term if they need it and can’t afford it for whatever reason. It’s helped quite a few people out already.”

The OVA’s budget has increased this year, and Miranda recounts that one of his major goals is to invite different veteran-focused representatives to the school to speak on topics like PTSD, how the V.A. works and what that means when claiming benefits, and the myriad of issues that transitioning vets are faced with. “We want to incorporate more things that are specifically for veterans, other than just giving them a place to hang out,” he says. “We want to provide them with resources that they don’t have access to otherwise.”

For Davila, the OVA provides a way for on-campus veterans to at least recognize one another, although he jokes that it’s not really that difficult to spot a veteran on campus. “Haircut? Yeah. Carrying around a camouflage backpack with a nametape on it? Yeah, that’s a veteran. It’s not like we’re hard to pick out!” What’s harder is breaking the ice, which is one of the goals behind the OVA. “Everybody is in this entirely new environment and with most veterans going into a new environment - especially civilian life - I feel that communication apprehension is really high. This is a new journey, going to school, and it’s different. A lot of the kids are younger. Our focus is a lot different than those of these younger kids. Veterans need to know other veterans, and they need to get together with other veterans to make the experience and the journey through college life a little bit easier. We’re there for one another, we know what it’s like, we know the camaraderie, we know the support, we know the commitment - we know all that we were taught before, and we know how to implement that into anything that we do, specifically, here, into college life.”

When School is Cool

Forming these friendships is important since, for veterans, it’s often hard to relate to the “traditional” student population. For Davila, this really hit home on the occasions that he did mingle with the younger students at campus parties: he’d be socializing with them one night, and the next morning they didn’t show up to class because they were “under the weather” from staying up late. “They’re learning how the whole college thing works, but they don’t understand the responsibility that it takes. If you go out late and you’ve got things to do in the morning, you’ve still got to get up and do them. In the military, there was no calling in sick!” he jokes. “They’d be like, ‘How do you guys do it?’ And we’d say, ‘We’re veterans.”

Miranda recalls that the classroom itself was a little foreign. “You’re used to being hands-on and out working and being active,” he says. Not to mention getting used to paying attention to lectures and taking notes. “It’s a huge change from what you have been doing for the last four or five years - definitely a huge culture shock, I would say.”

Davila advises that prior to enrolling in the college you choose, to talk to the college’s certified veterans’ representative first. “There has to be a certified official at the school, because that’s the only way the benefits work,” he says. “If the school doesn’t have a certified official, you can’t use your G.I. benefits there.” Get in contact with this official, and find out if they can put you in touch with student veterans that are already there so that you may benefit from their experience. “That’s how you learn in the military - you learn from your NCOs, you learn from all the guys who have done it before you, and it just gets passed down.” The same, he says, can apply to college.

But, it only gets passed down if you ask for help - something that Maples believes that veterans aren’t always adept at doing. “The biggest mistake I see veterans make is that there is a little bit of a, ‘I’m tough and I can deal with this myself’ attitude. And so, if they have struggles with some of the learning and struggles with some of the classes, rather than seek help they’ll try to tough it out themselves,” he says. “And, that’s a mistake. There are all kinds of things to help students, irrespective of whether they’re veterans or not, that are in place at various colleges and universities.” He notes that the tuition fees at Oregon Tech, for example, also include tutoring for everyone. “We really want people to take advantage of the tutoring, and not just say, ‘I can deal with it.’ There are these systems in place for a reason.”

Maples also counsels veterans to look into the success rate of the graduates of the institution of their choice - is it a good return on the investment of your educational dollar? Will the degree you want to pursue parlay into either a solid graduate program or employment at a reasonably high level of compensation? “Veterans have served the country and are given a salary for doing so and subsequent benefits afterwards, but to a certain extent, they need to take the future into their own hands as well, and make sure that the time that they spend is not wasted,” he says. “And, that the time that they spend actually then builds into a longer career trajectory that will be both fulfilling and rewarding, and will compensate them at a level that they deserve.”

Giving Back

Both Davila and Miranda have graduated. Davila holds a bachelor’s in communications and is currently pursuing a post-graduate degree, with the goal of obtaining a Ph.D. and teaching in higher education. Aptly enough, he’s focusing his research on communications - specifically, interpersonal communication and conflict resolution for veterans with PTSD. Miranda now holds his bachelor’s in renewable engineering, and after finishing two more classes this term, he’ll have another bachelor’s degree. The OVA is still going strong, with Casey Coulson, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, picking up from where Davila and Miranda are leaving off.

While transitioning from the military into college can be a culture shock, especially when it comes to student friendships, Miranda points out that veterans are well-positioned to form solid relationships with faculty and administration. “The thing I would say about student veterans is that we’re used to having a goal, having a mission and completing that. Coming out of the military, that’s your mindset, and in my opinion, that’s your mindset for the rest of life,” he says. “And, I think a lot of the faculty and the administration - I know [it’s like this] at our school but I’m sure this is the case at other schools - they really appreciate having student veterans in class because they are very dedicated. They know that they’re there to get their work done. And, that’s the only reason that they’re there.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

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