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News Clips 11/21/2012
Veterans learn to adjust to academic life at Jacksonville colleges
Source: Jacksonville Daily Record, 11/20/12
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By William Browning
Danielle D’Amato joined the Navy after she graduated high school in 2001 because she wanted to see the world and get out of Woodstock, N.Y.
A culinary specialist, she served for eight years. In that time she got married and moved to Jacksonville. When she left the military in 2009, she stepped into a tough economy. The best opportunity she found was an assistant manager gig at Dunkin’ Donuts that she felt didn’t pay enough.
“In today’s market, you really need a college degree,” she said.
So she began going to Florida State College at Jacksonville on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which President Barack Obama enacted in 2009 for anyone who has served since Sept. 11, 2001. Depending on how many months of active service a veteran served, the program can cover up to 100 percent of college tuition.
D’Amato’s story is becoming more and more common.
As groups of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return from overseas and exit the military, many are enrolling in college.
According to Randal Noller, spokesman with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were about 470,000 Post-9/11 GI Bill enrollments for the fall 2012 semester. In spring 2012, that number was roughly 416,000.
Colleges in Jacksonville are reporting growing numbers of student veterans. At Jacksonville University the number of student veterans attending in fall 2011 was 285. This semester there are 345. At the University of North Florida there are roughly 1,000 veterans attending college. Six veterans are enrolled at Edward Waters College this semester.
While those numbers grow, stepping onto a college campus is a big change of pace and culture for many military veterans.
D’Amato received an associate’s degree from FSCJ and is now a biology major at Jacksonville University. While she enjoys school, her college experience has been challenging in ways foreign to traditional students. For example, at 29 she is about a decade older than most of her classmates.
“I am literally closer to the age of my professors than the kids in my classes,” she said. “It’s hard to find cliques.”
She is also married with a mortgage and credit card bills to pay. And she has yet to fully shake “the military way.”
“Coming from the military, it is hard when teachers tell me I can work on a project whenever I want — I’m not used to that,” she said. “I’m used to, ‘This is your project, this is how you do it, exactly like this.’ That came from the Navy.”
D’Amato is the president of JU’s Student Veterans of America Club chapter. That interaction helps her make connections and find support in her peers in similar situations.
Rich Carey, transition coach with the Military & Veterans Resource Center at the University of North Florida, said the brotherhood servicemen and women develop while on active duty is the reason colleges work to create atmospheres where veterans help other veterans.
“It’s a shock for many,” he said of going from the service to a college campus. “You’ve been in the military and it can kind of be like being institutionalized. You’re in a closed system. Everything is right there. Now you walk out of that and you come to this system and it’s wide open.”
Ray Wikstrom, director of the Military & Veterans Resource Center at UNF, said his office opened in 2009 to help student veterans navigate the VA education benefit process. Since then it has grown in size and purpose. There are roughly 1,000-plus veterans attending UNF. The center now assists them with educational issues, medical issues, tutoring and academic advising.
One of the constant focuses, Wikstrom said, is “veteran on veteran” help.
“The old saying is, ‘Never leave anybody behind,’ ” Wikstrom, a veteran himself, said. “Same thing here. They feel more comfortable talking to veterans.”
Fred Culvyhouse, director of staff, students and veterans services with the Military Public Safety and Security Division at FSCJ, likened the change from military life to college life to “dropping off a ledge.”
“The doors open and you’re out there,” he said. “You’ve got to start making choices that before you really didn’t have to make. We help guide. We are helping them be contributors to the country they have already served.”
Culvyhouse assists veterans at FSCJ — there are roughly 2,400 today and that number is expected to crack 3,000 in the spring — in translating their military expertise over into possible careers that they begin working toward through classes at FSCJ. He also helps coordinate mentor relationships at the school with veterans.
“I’ve always found that we stick together,” said Richard Depontes, a 22-year-old student at FSCJ and Air Force reservist. “We understand each other, each other’s experiences. It seems like we migrate toward one another.”
D’Amato is set to graduate from JU in the fall of 2013. Despite the challenges she has faced during her college time, she is grateful for the opportunity her military service has afforded her.
“If it wasn’t for the Navy, I wouldn’t be in school,” she said.