Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in 2008, military veteran enrollment in higher education across the nation has surged, bringing new challenges to local universities.
"The new GI bill has spurred a lot of interest in going to college," said Jim Olive, coordinator for the Youngstown State University Office of Veterans Affairs. He credits the increase to the new GI Bill, "because it's a great bill" and it "pays all their tuition."
The Post-9/11 Bill provides tuition and other educational benefits to members of the U.S. military who served for at least six months after Sept. 11, 2001. It includes financial support for books and supplies, a housing allowance, and a relocation stipend for those moving from towns with a population of six people per square mile or less.
Tribune Chronicle photo /
In front, from left, Daniel Curl, Anna Mancini and Chris Dawson, and back, Jim Olive, are pictured in the Office of Veterans Affairs at Youngstown State University with a “Saluting Pete” t-shirt featuring the office’s logo. These shirts are used for fundraising and can be purchased by contacting the office.
But the bill is not the only motivation for veterans to go back to school.
"The military unemployment rate is over 21 percent," said Daniel Curl, a Youngstown State University student and Navy veteran.
This statistic is especially significant for military veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these servicemen and women are returning to an economy that is still struggling with the aftershocks of the recession, making a college degree a covetable and now attainable goal.
Although veterans may not have to pay for college, the road to a degree is not without obstacles.
According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, student veterans struggle with more than just doing well in class. Full-time first-year student veterans spend twice as much time working as nonveteran students on average and an additional six hours on child care.
Add an almost universal fish-out-of-water experience as veterans try to adjust to loosely structured college life, and the result can be overwhelming.
"They're faced with job concerns, family concerns, this transition from military life to college life. Coming out of the military, your life is very structured. Every minute of your day is planned and the mission is very clear. University life is 180 degrees from that," said Olive.
Youngstown State University has made enormous efforts to smooth the transition to college life for its veteran students, he said.
"We have been classified for three years in a row now as veteran-friendly through GI Jobs Magazine, which ranks us in the top 20 percent in the nation. We're proud of that," said Olive.
The Office of Veterans Affairs has been supporting its student veterans for more than two years with services like benefits processing, a university advisory council, the waiving of application and orientation fees, and, perhaps most exceptionally, its veterans-only classes.
"We offer sections of required general education classes just for current military or veterans, and that really helps them in their transition to university life," Olive said.
The classes are identical to those taken by nonveteran students except that the class is made up entirely of veterans, and the professors are veterans themselves.
For Curl, the veterans-only classes were an important experience.
"For me, coming back as a non-traditional student, it's kind of hard to relate to over half the class, except for the veterans classes," he said. "Everyone has some sort of story. You're not straight out of high school. We've gone places, done things, been stationed, seen some things."
For Chris Dawson, a senior and active member of the National Guard, the veterans-only classes offer more than a familiar environment.
"Professors bring up things that we can really relate to," Dawson said. "Even some of the readings were on military stuff. You can write about your military experience. It helps you get some of that stuff out there and off your chest."
The student-led Armed Forces Student Association at YSU has been in existence for just six months and already has organized and participated in countless events including a car show, Valentines for Vets, a luncheon honoring currently-serving children of university employees, and several community cleanup efforts. Perhaps most inspiring, university president Cynthia Anderson joined student veterans in traveling to Washington, D.C., to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"To lay a wreath at the tomb is just the greatest honor. I was glad that our university was able to be there," said Olive.
This spring marked the first time in YSU history that student veterans were honored for their service at commencement. Students graduating with military status wore red, white and blue cords along with their cap and gown. In August, Dawson will be the first member of the Armed Forces Student Association to graduate.
"We don't have a recruiter just dedicated to that audience," Olive said. "But with veterans, the word of mouth gets out that they're treated well here, with attention and care, and that's what they get."