In December, the University of Arizona’s veterans center moved into a new space of 3,800 square feet. Nicholls, the assistant dean, shows a visitor the computer lab, a lounge and a quiet area where students unwind. He talks about the “vets-tutoring-vets” program and a résumé-writing course. He points toward a display of military patches and nameplates. “In the military, your job defines who you are,” he explains.

Undergirding everything at the center is a belief that veterans are most qualified to help veterans. “You can look in a vet’s eyes and get a pretty good idea of how they are doing,” says Nicholls.

When new student veterans arrive on campus, someone from the center escorts them to their first destinations, which often includes a stop to register their G.I. Bill benefits. This stop is at an office “clear across campus,” says Standage, who earned his bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation in 2009 and a master’s degree in visual impairment in December. “A lot of the vets fresh out of combat say it (the escort) reminds them of going outside the wire (in a combat zone) and having a hand on a buddy’s shoulder.”

For Randle, helping veterans provides a “sense of purpose.” A few years ago he undertook a “mission” to make it easier for veterans to get the classes they need. At a time when many students take six or more years to earn a bachelor’s degree, the G.I. Bill’s education benefit covers a maximum of 36 months of tuition, plus stipends for books and housing. Users must adhere to an approved education plan or risk losing benefits. Closed classes can cause huge problems.

Veterans “are tightly constrained in how we use our education benefits,” Randle says. “The (new) G.I. Bill is the only form of federal education assistance that has specific class requirements tied to it.”

Randle and others suggested that the university allow veterans to register for classes before other students, an idea that wasn’t immediately embraced by the administration. “Every time we were told ‘no,’ we called two more people,” Randle says. Perseverance prevailed, and now student veterans get a one-week head start on registering for classes — a perk long enjoyed by the university’s student athletes.

Efforts to promote the success of student veterans seem to be paying off. The four-year graduation rate at the University of Arizona is 40 percent. For student veterans, it is more than 50 percent. One possible explanation for the disparity is the degree to which on-campus veterans programs, including the veterans center, make it easy for students with military backgrounds to be part of something that has meaning for them. “The more active you are on campus, the more likely you are to persist,” Kraus says.

For legions of military veterans, college is the new front

IIn the winter of 2008, Ricardo (Rico) Pereyda prepared for his final mission with military precision. Behind the walls of his boyhood home, Pereyda placed blankets on the floor of his old bedroom. He wrote a letter of apology to his estranged wife and his parents, June and José. Then he lay on the floor, cocked a 9 mm handgun, placed the barrel of the weapon in his mouth and rested his finger on the trigger.

READ THIS STORYarrow

Community college challenges

Creating veteran-friendly institutions is particularly difficult for community colleges. Two-year institutions enroll the majority of students who have performed military service, yet they frequently lack resources they need to help vets.

READ THIS STORYarrow