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Student veterans speak out about their experiences in higher education

Mae Ryan/KPCC

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After 9/11, a new GI Bill was introduced. It was supposed to offer the same kind of welcome that returning veterans from World War II received but adjusted to 21st century needs. Currently, about half a million veterans are taking advantage of this opportunity at pursuing higher education. However, a college campus can seem just as alien as the foreign places that vets had served in.

On May 7, 2013, American Public Media and KPCC presented a forum about the challenges that student veterans face. Several students, professors, and university staff members came together to talk about veteran issues on college campuses. The discussion was facilitated by Patt Morrison.

Kolin Williams, an army veteran and veteran’s counselor at Saddleback Community College spoke about some of the struggles that student veterans face. “Many veterans are re-entry students, and they’re not always good students. I find that most frequently, they typically struggle in academics,” he said. “Many use the GI Bill as a transitioning tool just to pay basic bills… [they] may not even believe that they belong in college.”

Marshall Lewis, a Marine attending Pasadena City College, believes that college can be mentally and emotionally hindering if veterans do not have a support system.  “I was in the Phantom Fury, the Second Battle of Fallujah. I had a political science professor who was, second day of class I believe, speaking about the Battle of Fallujah…the professor from the bottom of the classroom looks up at me and says ‘hey, do you know that all your Marines and all your friends died for nothing?’” This story conjured up a lot of emotion in the room – gasps of disbelief and nods of familiarity.

At Fullerton College, a Veterans Resource Center with a camaraderie room offers the support system that student veterans need. “My first semester, I definitely had issues trying to communicate with other people. You just can’t relate to other students who are 18, 19, who are late, who are messing around on their phones,” said Mike Lee, an Air Force veteran. He said that the camaraderie room was a space where students could vent and talk to other people with similar experiences. It helped him get involved with campus life.

Now Lee is transferring to UC Berkeley and works at the Veterans Resource Center on campus where he helps students lay out a long term plan. “As soon as you can teach a vet how to plan their own courses, how they’re going to transfer and put their destiny into their own hands, they seem to flourish a lot more, because they know what needs to be done - not just past this semester, but next semester and the following semester. You essentially empower them to hold their own future.”

See more photos of the student veterans and their mentors on KPCC's visual journalism blog AudioVision.