Veterans who go back to school wish they had more support

As more veterans return to school, drawn by a new GI Bill that offers more generous benefits than its predecessor, colleges and universities in the Washington region and across the nation are launching efforts to ease the daunting social, psychological and logistical transition from combat to classroom.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:18 AM

Enrollment of veterans is surging at America's college campuses, but as a group they don't feel supported and understood, according to a national survey.

Researchers with the National Survey of Student Engagement interviewed nearly 11,000 veterans who were first-year students or seniors at four-year schools. The veterans reported interacting less with their instructors than did classmates who had not enlisted, and they were less likely to partake in educational opportunities such as internships or study abroad.

The Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research produces the survey each year to measure how students and faculty interact and learn. The latest, results of which will be released Thursday, found that colleges should "seek ways to more effectively engage student veterans in effective educational practices and provide them with the supportive environments that promote success."

Transitioning from military life to civilian life is difficult enough, but trying to fit in on a college campus is "a culture shock that's hard to adjust to," said Michael Dakduk, the deputy executive director of Student Veterans of America, which has chapters on more than 300 campuses.

Other factors can also make veterans feel disconnected: They are more likely to transfer between schools or to enroll part time, the survey found. One in five combat veterans reported having a disability, compared with one in 10 non-veterans. Veterans also spend more time working or caring for a family than do traditional college students.

Still, the veterans reported just as many hours studying as their peers. "What amazes me is how many people are succeeding, despite the obstacles," Dakduk said.

Colleges need to realize that student veterans are different from typical students and need more support, said Brian Hawthorne, who served two tours in Iraq for the Army and is a graduate student in political management at George Washington University.

Hawthorne said veterans need administrators who understand the "depth and breadth" of the complicated GI Bill and can help students graduate in less than four years. "The veteran experience is not one that most people know," he said. "I could pay anyone to go to college. ... It's the services that keep veterans in school."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company