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by Mary Winstead
Technical Sergeant Luke Tajima joined the Minnesota Air National Guard right after high school. He was twice deployed to Iraq as a flight medic, airlifting wounded soldiers to Germany for treatment. At one point, a physician pulled him aside and asked him about his future. "I was in my mid-twenties and just beginning to learn about myself," Tajima said. "He inspired me to go to school and pursue my dreams."
After eight years of military service, Tajima enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate in biochemistry, with the hope of earning a master's degree in public health. But like many of the more than 800 student veterans across the U of M system, Tajima discovered that despite everything he'd achieved, the transition to college life was an entirely new challenge.
Veterans face many of the same obstacles as other adults who decide to earn a degree, like balancing college coursework with the demands of work and family. But student vets make adjustments that aren't often obvious.
"In the military, your life is regimented," Tajima says. "You're told what to wear, where to go, what to do. It needs to be that way in a war. You're taught to be part of a team, because if you stand out, you could be picked out. And shot. Then, you return home, enroll in school, and face an overwhelming number of choices: how to choose your classes, manage your schedule, be in charge of your time. Maybe for the first time in your adult life."
Tajima also points out that student vets often have difficulty seeking help. "Asking for help—a big part of academic success—is not part of military culture, despite the wealth of help available," he says. "One lesson student vets learn is that it doesn't signal weakness."
And then there's the paperwork. As part of OneStop services for all U of M students, University Veterans Services (UVS) has designed a process to make the transition from service to school easier on all U of M campuses. Online and in the office, the process helps veterans navigate the admissions process, learn about various events and programs for student vets, and get referrals for health, counseling, career services, and other resources. The office also assists vets with the complicated process of completing the paperwork necessary to receive veterans' benefits.
"The paperwork can be daunting," says Jenni Peterson, who manages UVS. "We help them through the process step by step."
To stay ahead of the changing needs of student vets, UVS has also established a special orientation process, awareness sessions for new faculty, a cross-disciplinary advisory committee, and regular visits from outside organizations such as the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Medical Center. The process has been recognized as a national model.
"Veterans Services has been superb," says Tajima, now a senior and president of the Student Veterans Association, which offers a gathering place to socialize, mentor, and unwind. "Especially in deferring tuition until benefits come in, which is distinctive about Minnesota, and really takes the pressure off."
VA processing can mean a wait of eight to 12 weeks for benefits, says Peterson. With more than 26,000 veterans nationwide whose VA benefits are backlogged, tuition deferrals make an enormous difference. But many veterans still consider leaving school for jobs that will pay the bills at home.
"Many of us have families," Tajima points out. "Our landlords don't defer rent, and we still have groceries, gas, and car payments. To help, we are raising money for emergency relief to help vets stay in school."
The number of returning veterans deciding to go to college is rising. But VA education benefits vary by time served, number of deployments, and active duty. So scholarship support is needed more than ever. Derek Amlie, a West Point graduate from Shoreview, Minnesota, served as an Army environmental science officer who trained deploying soldiers. The Carlson Veterans Fellowship has helped him pursue an MBA without worrying about debt, and freed his time for career-advancing internships. "It was the deciding factor for me to come to the U," he says.
Other private support includes the Wal-Mart Veterans Fund for undergrads, established in 2009. And last year the University became a partner institution with the Pat Tilman Foundation, which awarded scholarships to two veterans and an Army spouse.
"Student veterans bring so much to the classroom," Peterson adds, "like leadership, a wealth of life experience, teamwork, and diversity. Scholarships help more of these talented people stay and finish their degrees."
Mary Winstead is senior writer at the U of M Foundation.