The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act was one of the bipartisan triumphs of 2017. Referred to as the “Forever GI Bill,” it makes significant changes to education benefits for service members and veterans, like no longer requiring them to use their benefits within 15 years of active-duty service. But supporting veterans in higher education is more complicated than just giving them more time.
Marty Martinez spent 29 years in the military before coming to the University of Wyoming.
“Very structured environment in the military. Very disciplined environment where we knew all the expectations. We knew all the rules,” said Martinez. “So coming here was probably the scariest day of my life.”
Martinez is referring to the moment in 2012 when he went from being a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army to his new civilian career as the head of UW’s Veterans Services Center.
“I came here expected to be the guy knowing about transition, but actually as I was working with the students, I was learning about it myself.”
He discovered that around 40 percent of UW’s veteran students were dropping out. And UW was like most schools across the country.
“There wasn’t much happening for veterans in education. They were just starting to realize these guys and gals have a lot of money they are coming here within the form of a GI Bill.”
Martinez said he walked on the job and faced a wall of questions.
“How are we starting to service them? What challenges are they having now that they are on a college campus? What does this transition piece mean to a veteran? And how can we be assistive to that?” Martinez rattled off.
For the last five years, he’s been working to come up with answers – like increasing tutoring, hosting more social events and working with professors to heighten their awareness of veterans’ needs. Now, fewer veterans are dropping out. Martinez estimates the loss rate is down to 30 percent. But he hears from veterans that more could still be done to ease the transition from warrior to scholar.
“For veterans, it’s just military and civilian life, that in and of itself is a culture shock,” said student Zack Myers.
One big cultural difference was that Myers’ time in the Marines was defined by being a part of a team.
“Even though you start as a civilian, and then you join and that changes you, and then you get so used to that and when you get out it’s back to stuff you don’t even remember.”
Like remembering what it feels like to be an outsider. Myers said professors often assume students are familiar with academic culture, or that they’ll get help figuring it out. But at first, it was hard for Myers to figure out even what to ask.
To help build a bridge between military and academic culture, this past fall UW started experimenting with courses just for veterans like Myers.
Professor TK Stoudt was the first to teach one of these classes; a first-year seminar called "Redefining Success." As he outlined an assignment for his students, his own military past came through.
“This is the hard part — when you get foxtrot golf hotel,” he said pointing to bullet points F, G and H. “Right here, it’s time to start doing some analysis and research.”
Myers, who is one Stoudt’s students, said his use of military lingo is not the only thing that sets him apart from other professors.
“Every time I see him walking back and forth to class, he’ll stop and talk to me and ask me about my classes. He wants to know,” said Myers. “He’s the only one who stops and talks to me, and who will take time out of his day to talk to me even for five minutes.”
Stoudt understands his work must happen both in and outside the classroom, and he gets emotional explaining why.
“It’s hard for many battle-tested combat veterans that are really hard on the outside, that they are soft on the inside. And they want to talk to another veteran. We come from a hyper-masculine society. We keep everything inside. So that’s what happens when I do my work outside of the classroom.”
His approach is shaped by his academic research on what he calls “collaborative communication” — in other words, what it takes to actually get people to listen to one another — and from his more than 30 years of military service spent stateside and in combat.
“When I wore the uniform, I was a chief master sergeant. So when I retired I didn’t know who ‘TK’ was. And I think these young uniformed service members are in the same boat.”
So to help veterans find solid footing in academia, Stoudt’s course centers around a rigorous semester-long research project. He asks them to look at their own lives, find strengths and skills from their time in the military, and then justify their application in the academic world.
During the final presentations of their projects, student Dorian Dugas told his classmates that through his research, he’d been able to earn 23 credits at UW from coursework he’d already done in the Marines. But it also inspired him to leave his military expertise in mechanics behind to pursue a new passion — geology.
He told his class: “It’s interesting getting back into college. I mean I’ve always liked learning, but I couldn’t have done this at 18 or 19. I needed some Marine Corps training. Get the fun stuff out of the way.”
That comment got a collective smirk from his classmates, who like Dugas, endured a lot of hard work in the military. But they’ve also worked hard figuring out how to believe in themselves now that they’re in command of their own futures. The hope is that a renewed sense of confidence will guide them all the way to graduation.