The typical college student looks forward to the social life and dreads the schoolwork. For military veterans who enroll in college after serving overseas, the opposite can hold true.
At a downtown New Haven forum with his U.S. senators Tuesday, one veteran, Taylor Clark, 24, a first-year student at Gateway Community College, compared the demands of schoolwork to what he faced as an infantryman in Iraq.
“Putting in the effort isn’t hard,” he said. “I’m not running uphill with 115 pounds on me for 10 miles.”
Recalling a professor who warned him against taking too many demanding classes, Clark (pictured above) added, “I fought a war; I can read a book.”
On the other hand, Clark, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said that the crowds of people around him could make it a challenge just to make it to class. “I might be able to do well in school, but I’m battling just walking through the door,” he said.
Four student veterans had a chance to discuss those and other issues with school administrators and Connecticut U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy at Gateway Tuesday afternoon.
The event was billed as a discussion of the Obama Administration’s “8 Keys To Success,” an initiative encouraging schools to enhance their support for returning service members, which Gateway is the first school in Connecticut to adopt. The event turned out to be more of a conversation about the issues veteran students face and Gateway’s efforts to address them.
“We’re here to listen, to gather ideas, and hopefully put them into action,” said Blumenthal, a former Marine who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and has two sons in the military. Of the 8 Keys To Success program, he said, “This is a baby step, and we need to take much bigger steps.”
A major theme of the discussion was frustration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to Kellie Byrd Danso, Gateway’s director of career services and veteran affairs, the number-one problem facing student veterans is “them not getting their money on time.”
Attendees shook their heads and chuckled knowingly as Danso described the difficulties and delays students face in receiving their work-study payments from the VA, and the danger of unwittingly falling into debt by dropping a course. (The VA educational benefits depend on maintaining a minimum credit level.)
About 400 of Gateway’s approximately 8,000 students are veterans, according to President Dorsey Kendrick. While the students acknowledged financial difficulties, they focused more on the unique social and emotional challenges that school presents for veterans.
“I know they covered the money issue, obviously, but I don’t think they really covered enough of the mental stress that people go through,” Clark said, referring to the senators.
Clark returned home from Iraq, where his responsibilities included searching for weapons in high-violence areas such as Sadr City, Baghdad. He said he’s dealing “with a lot of issues” that most of his fellow students don’t understand. “It’s not just from shooting somebody that you have nightmares, you know. You get nightmares from a sergeant ridiculing you. I’ve been in rooms before and talked to—physically ‘talked to’—and what am I gonna do?” Clark said he was physically abused by his commanding officers, and had no recourse. He tried to file a complaint, he said; he was laughed at.
“I still don’t like how many people are around me,” Clark continued. “It’s almost a fight just to get up the stairs because I’m so vigilant, I almost can’t concentrate on where I’m going. But once I get there and I’m able to open my book and sit in the class and study, everything fades away for a minute and I’m allowed to concentrate on something other than my disability.”
For Charles Kim (pictured), 37, the biggest challenge transitioning back to civilian life was a sense of isolation and the “culture clash” between veteran and non-veteran students.
“The culture of the kids at school is a little different from what we’re used to in the military,” said Kim, who also suffers from PTSD. When pressed, he added diplomatically of his non-military classmates, “I don’t want to say less disciplined, just disciplined differently.”
Kim, a self-described “really horrible student” in high school, echoed Clark’s point about transferring military experience into academic success. After serving with the Marine Corps in Bosnia and Haiti in the late 1990s and in Iraq in 2003, Kim enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2008 with a degree in anthropology. (His thesis was on veterans as a kinship community.) At Gateway, he is completing coursework needed to apply to medical school.
“I would not have been able to do it without the discipline,” Kim said. “A lot of the veterans I speak to are very focused. Mission-oriented, I guess you could call it.”
Clark and Kim had nothing but praise for Gateway’s management of veterans’ concerns. Their comments, like those of the other students at the discussion, tended to focus on the efforts of Rick Palinko, a veteran who is listed on the school’s website as an “educational assistant—veteran’s associate.” His job mixes mentorship, counseling, and providing special accommodations for disabled veterans.
“Everybody here is great,” said Clark. “Rick makes you feel super comfortable, a lot of one-on-ones. They accommodate any problem that you might have.”
That allows him to stay mission-oriented. “A lot of people don’t realize: I’m being paid to go to school,” Clark said. “Which just allows me to focus on my main goal of doing the best I can, getting the best education I can and then pursuing a career once I’m knowledgeable enough to participate in society.”