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Campus rolls out red carpet for returning troops
New GI Bill provides substantial financial aid; expect to see ‘some pretty happy veterans’ here soon

| 17 July 2008

With a new GI Bill set to double college benefits for post-9/11 veterans, Berkeley is taking up the charge to make the state’s higher-education system more welcoming to those returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A new campus program offers veterans customized outreach and orientation programs, guidance with financial aid, and a new class that addresses their concerns.

After months of wrangling on Capitol Hill, bipartisan accord helped pass a sweeping war-funding bill that, since its signing by President Bush on June 30, guarantees veterans four years’ paid tuition at their most expensive in-state public university, a monthly stipend based on housing costs for the area, and education benefits for up to 15 years after active duty.

“You’re going to see some pretty happy veterans walking around campus,” says Michael Cooper, who processes veterans’ benefits in the Office of the Registrar and who served in the Air Force during the Gulf War. “It’s going to make life a whole lot better for everyone.”


Ron Williams (right), who coordinates veterans’ services for the campus re-entry and transfer center, chatted with Mary Catherine Birgeneau at the recent recognition ceremony for 2008’s Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award winners. The Cal Veterans Student Services team to which Williams belongs was one honoree. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

The University of California is gearing up for an influx of returning troops seeking admission to its campuses. At Berkeley this year, 151 students who have identified themselves as veterans are majoring in everything from engineering and languages to philosophy and peace-and-conflict studies.

“The number of veterans at Berkeley increased this year, and we’re likely to see that number grow,” says Ron Williams, campus coordinator of Re-entry Student and Veterans Programs and Services.

Williams is a key member of a new cross-campus team that is serving veterans as part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Troops to College” program. The initiative was launched via a memorandum of agreement signed last year by Schwarzenegger, then-UC President Robert Dynes, California State University Chancellor Charles Reed, and California Community Colleges Chancellor Mark Drummond.

“Veterans bring leadership, maturity, and life skills that make for highly successful students,’’ says Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who wrote to Congress earlier this year urging support for legislation to expand educational benefits for returning veterans. “We honor their service by helping them to build a better future for themselves as well as for our nation.”

Helping veterans adjust to life at Berkeley are specialists from admissions, financial aid, counseling and psychological services, the Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center, the Disabled Students’ Program, the Career Center, and the Cal Veterans Student Group. Perks include priority enrollment, workshops, and a class specifically tailored for veterans, to be taught this fall.

“It seems like Berkeley is really ahead in welcoming veterans. It’s awesome,” says Stuart Martin, 23, a veteran of the Marine Corps who is majoring in Near Eastern studies and rhetoric at Berkeley following a tour of duty in Iraq last year.

Berkeley has educated untold numbers of veterans. The student body swelled after World War II as thousands of returning troops enrolled with the help of the original 1944 GI Bill, which paid for full tuition, books, and room and board.

Over the years, however, GI benefits have not kept pace with the soaring cost of education; until the recent bill’s passage, they covered less than half the cost of an undergraduate degree at a public research university such as Berkeley, says Kathleen Moazed, the campus’s director of federal relations. Williams notes that fewer than half of the campus’s self-identified veterans claim GI benefits. Some have been opting to use less-restrictive financial-aid grants for their undergraduate education while saving GI benefits for graduate school.

All this is poised to change with the new GI Bill, which is based on legislation authored by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran. Initially, the Webb bill was challenged by the Pentagon and Republican presidential candidate John McCain for being too generous and thus threatening to encourage servicemen and -women to leave the military after just one enlistment.

But political and public support for it has been so overwhelming that veterans’ groups anticipate seeing GI benefits increase as soon as January 2009. Williams says the new GI Bill and the Troops to College effort not only repay veterans for their service but are also an investment in their communities.

“When a nontraditional student, such as a veteran, comes to Berkeley, it’s not just the individual who benefits, but also his or her family and community who then see education as an opportunity to advance and impact the world around them,” Williams says.

Dispelling myths about veterans

Of course, at Berkeley, just as on other college campuses, Iraq and Afghanistan conflict veterans face the stigma of having served in an unpopular war, and so part of Williams’ job is to dispel on campus some of the myths about veterans, he says.

“Regrettably, some people operate on stereotypes about those who serve in the military, [believing] that if they enlist, they must be conservative, that they support the war, that they’re violent, or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Williams says. “But everyone’s different. Some come from a longstanding tradition of serving the country. For others, the military offers a way to advance by getting technical training. Others are using their experience in the military to effect policy changes because of what they learned.”

The latter describes Marine veteran Martin, a Sacramento native who has been writing to his representatives in Congress since leaving the military last fall. The armed forces opened doors for him, he says, but his service also led him to question a lot of the military’s tactics, particularly in recruiting and retention.

Martin, whose father and grandfather were in the military, joined the Marines when he was 17 because he wanted to see something of the “real world” and was not ready for college: “I felt I needed to grow up,” he says. He vividly recalls the recruiter assuring him that college would be paid for once he completed his five-year enlistment.

With his sharp academic skills, he was able to enroll at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute, where he learned Farsi, the most widely spoken Persian language. As a Persian translator he was deployed early last year to Iraq, where he spent time in port cities where Farsi was spoken. Though he never felt his life was in danger, he says the job was stressful and that he was anxious to return to California.

While he enjoys studying Persian language and culture at Berkeley, money is tight, and he’s counting the days until the new GI Bill goes into effect. Though he’s eligible for the full $1,800 monthly GI benefit, it’s not enough to cover his undergraduate expenses. But the situation isn’t dire enough to drive him to re-enlist.

“If money was my main motivation, I would have stayed on in Iraq and worked for a contractor, but that wasn’t my plan. I wanted to go to Berkeley, get a good education, and not go into debt,” he says. “Hopefully, with this new GI Bill, the last part of that won’t be necessary.”