What some call help, others see as hovering

In 1974, Daryle Hendry faced a difficult decision. His father, a veteran, wanted him to enlist in the Army. His mother, a first-generation high school graduate, wanted her son to attend college. “I didn’t want to do either one,” recalls Hendry, who was 17 at the time and still in high school. “I wanted to get a job and make some money.”

To appease his parents, Hendry joined the Army National Guard with the intention of taking classes at Polk Community College, in Winter Haven, Fla. He was in the Guard for less than a year before enrolling at Georgia Military College, where he earned an associate degree, which led to a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army.

Hendry earned a bachelor’s degree from Park University and a master’s degree in human relations from the University of Oklahoma. He retired as an Army major in 1993, whereupon he landed a job at El Paso Community College (EPCC).

As a soldier-scholar and a veteran college administrator, Hendry neither wanted nor expected special consideration. As EPCC’s executive director of admissions and its registrar, he holds fast to that philosophy.

“I didn’t want to be treated any differently. … Soldiers want to get back into society,” Hendry says. At EPCC, “we try to treat veterans and active-duty military as much like regular students as possible.”

His colleague Arvis C. Jones sees things differently.

“I don’t believe they should be treated the same,” says Jones of the college’s student veterans. In making the transition from military life to civilian life, undergraduates who have served in the military must overcome challenges that other students don’t confront, says Jones, EPCC’s director of student leadership and campus life.

“We need to hand-walk them through the system. They need to have that guidance,” says Jones, an Army brat whose father was stationed at Fort Bliss, in El Paso.  An employee of the college for 33 years, she defines a “military-friendly institution” as a college or university that provides student veterans with “a sound academic foundation, a sound financial foundation and a sound personal foundation.”

Hendry and Jones don’t always see eye to eye, but they’re not diametrically opposed. Rather, they represent a submerged tension in higher education regarding how much help student veterans should receive. Put another way: Where to draw the line between accommodation and coddling?

The answer is fuzzy at best. In an era of reflexive “support the troops” fervor, college campuses that are already averse to marching in lockstep vary in their support of student veterans.

Among some members of EPCC’s faculty, for example, the prevailing attitude is: “I’m here to educate you. I’m not interested in your personal issues,” says Jones. Those “personal issues” might include PTSD and other afflictions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We do need to educate the faculty,” she says.

At the University of Arizona, Amanda Kraus and her colleagues in the Disability Resource Center provide accommodations required by federal law. “The institution has to be accessible to everyone. That’s the obligation,” says Kraus, the center’s assistant director. Legal requirements notwithstanding, “there are skeptics among the faculty,” she admits. At times, students “kind of have to fight” to get disabilities recognized.

Matt Randle, an Arizona graduate and a student in its law school, says the willingness to help student veterans varies among faculty and administrators across campus.

Randle has suffered from PTSD since returning home, in 2003, from a combat zone in Iraq. To compensate for his poor concentration and other lingering symptoms, the university provides the services of a note-taker. “That’s huge for me,” Randle says. In addition, professors are supposed to make available PowerPoint presentations of lectures, but “not every professor pursues my accommodations with vigor,” he says.

Student veterans and their advocates say ignorance is the adversary, and the best ammunition for fighting it is education. A presentation to the university’s provost and deans resulted in an offer by the vice provost to create a video to educate faculty and staff about student veterans’ issues.

“The main message is that there are issues, but here’s information to better understand where veterans are coming from,” says Cody Nicholls, assistant dean for Veterans Education and Transition Services (VETS).

At times, fellow students question the education benefits received by veterans. Rutgers University student Scott Hakim, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, received a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in a bomb blast. He returned home with the medal, PTSD and other injuries.

He recalls one  student in a sociology class who openly questioned why taxpayers had to pay for his and other veterans’ G.I. Bill benefits because, after all, “they were too dumb to go to college and had to join the military.” Hakim expresses satisfaction that he aced the final exam while his complaining classmate failed. Still, one gets the sense that Hakim would rather not have to prove that he belongs at Rutgers.

Among the university’s administrators, there are differences of opinion about the extent to which student veterans should be a part of daily campus life. Steve Abel, director of the university’s Office of Veteran & Military Programs & Services, believes that bringing the university to veterans is essential to their success. He has created an assistance program that funnels services — everything from academic advising to mental health counseling — to a central location known as Veterans House.

The approach is needed, advocates say, because student veterans who are newly arrived on campus experience culture shock that can overwhelm them. “They come here and have fear about talking to a professor,” says Kathy Loder-Murphy, a disability service coordinator who counsels students at Veterans House.

However, Patrick Love, the university’s associate vice president for student affairs, says it is possible to provide a level of accommodation that is counterproductive for students and the larger community. For example, he doesn’t want a special veterans admissions counselor seeing students in Veterans House. He doesn’t want student veterans to become a specialized, separate community on campus.

“I want them in the admissions office,” where they can educate staff about students who have served in the military, he says.

“I tend to look at things systematically.”


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.


Vets helping vets

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.


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.


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