Vets Face Tough March from Military to College

July 1st, 2007 - by admin

Aaron Glantz / Special to The Chronicle – 2007-07-01 22:55:36

ARCATA, Humboldt County(July 1, 2007) — On a recent afternoon, Marine veteran Derek Adams played with his 2-year-old son while describing the difficulties in making the transition from the military life to the student life in California.

“In the military, you’re told what to do. You just work and work,” he said. “When you go back (to school) … it can be a little weird to be 26 and all the other kids are 18 just out of high school.”

Not that Adams, now 30, isn’t grateful.

In May, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in botany from Humboldt State University thanks to a program called Veterans Upward Bound. Situated in California’s famed old-growth redwoods, Humboldt has the only program at a California college or university that helps veterans shift from soldier to college student, according to the federal Department of Education.

Veterans Upward Bound offers free 10-week classes in English, math and other college prep subjects designed to refresh veterans on courses they learned in high school. The program also employs a full-time counselor to assist vets in filling out complicated paperwork and to put them, when necessary, in contact with mental health care and housing organizations.

“When I came back here, I didn’t have anywhere to live,” said Adams, who spent five years in the military. “They set me up at the Vets House (for homeless veterans) for a month until the math and science programs started that summer.”

In March 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised that California veterans would receive more help to return to school. He made the announcement while standing alongside the heads of the University of California, California State University and community college systems. University officials say they appreciate the governor’s initiative but also point out that he has failed to provide funds to pay for such programs.

“So far, we’ve only been able to add internal mechanisms to make our existing programs more visible and approachable,” said Jo Volkert, San Francisco State associate vice president for enrollment management.

A spokeswoman for the governor, Gena Grebitus, acknowledged that no additional money has been appropriated for veterans’ education. But “meetings are ongoing,” she said, adding that Schwarzenegger wants to “continue to reach out and let active-duty soldiers and veterans know they have access to public colleges and universities in California.”

According to the Department of Education, veterans are less likely to graduate from college than students who have never served in the military. The department’s most recent data show just 3 percent of veterans who entered a four-year college program in 1995 graduated by 2001, compared with a 30 percent overall graduation rate.

The low number is particularly disturbing, veterans advocates say, considering that many join the military primarily to finance college tuition. Recruiters promise enlistees on active duty as much as $72,000 in education benefits and $23,000 for reserves.

David Ortega Shaw, who served in Vietnam and is Veterans Upward Bound’s counselor at Humboldt State, said more money needs to be pumped into programs such as Upward Bound — only 44 of which exist throughout the nation.

“The federal government is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “They are funding the (Iraq and Afghanistan) war … by taking revenue that deserves to be going to veterans in the form of health, education and welfare.”

Activists also say more should be done to help vets find housing and medical care, and to expedite the backlog of 400,000 disability claims.

“It’s not as though we’re working on commission here,” Ronald Aument, the Veterans Affairs deputy undersecretary for benefits, told the Washington Post. “There is very much a shared passion in this organization in trying to do right by veterans.”

In an e-mail message, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said there is “a very robust program to assist service members transitioning from the military services. Service members have the opportunity to attend college anywhere they are based and even in the combat zone through Internet classes offered from the college they are enrolled in.”

But many returning vets say it’s difficult to study while in the military — especially in combat zones.

Once they leave, some say they encounter hostile university administrators who are usually unwilling to help them navigate the bureaucracy to activate their benefits.

Paris Lee, a 23-year-old native of Humboldt County, served three years in the Army before being honorably discharged in 2005.

He recently completed Veterans Upward Bound’s summer program, but the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his GI Bill funds. Program counselors have since sent an appeal letter to the VA regional office in Muskogee, Okla.

“They said I’m not eligible because I served 35 months and two days in the Army,” Lee said. “Normally, you have to serve 36 months to get education benefits, so they’re trying to deny me based on 28 days.”

While he waits for a response from the VA, Lee deals blackjack, pai gow and Texas Hold ‘Em at Blue Lake Indian Casino east of Arcata.

Johnny Avalos, a Marine veteran from Southern California, heard about Veterans Upward Bound while attending Mount San Antonio Community College in Walnut (Los Angeles County). He is now a nursing student at Humboldt State and outreach director for the Upward Bound program.

“Let’s face it, there’s no course that you take that prepares you for college,” Avalos said. “But when I got up here, I met a Vietnam veteran who now has a Ph.D. These people know the system.”
College assistance for service members

• Humboldt State — The Veterans Upward Bound is the most extensive program in California helping veterans make the transition from military to college. Most Bay Area colleges and universities are limited to a small staff of counselors who help veterans complete complicated paperwork required to receive education benefits.

• UC Berkeley — The registrar’s office helps veterans obtain their benefits. Cal does not offer special education classes, but does help former service members fill out additional paperwork required to receive on-campus tutoring paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. UC Berkeley’s tuition is $4,192.25 a semester.

• San Francisco State University — The admissions office helps veterans obtain benefits and offers academic advisers. S.F. State has no special classes for veterans and charges $1,728 a semester.

• University of San Francisco — Employs a veterans certification specialist who coordinates benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs. At $15,420 per semester, tuition at USF dramatically exceeds the typical GI Bill education benefit of $1,075 a month.

• City College of San Francisco — Employs two benefits specialists and a full-time counselor. City College also offers up to six semester units of credit to former service members with one year or more of active duty in any branch of the armed forces. Veterans who have completed military-training courses equivalent to classes offered at City College can also receive up to 10 units toward an associate’s degree. Tuition is $20 a unit.

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

Poste in accordance with Title 17, US COde, for noncommercail, educational purposes.