Program help military veterans transition to university life
By John Walsh
John Carroll has a long history of hosting military programs, beginning with the U.S. Navy V-12 program during World War II and continuing with the establishment of a host Army ROTC program in 1952. The University officially has been recognized by GI Jobs magazine as a military friendly school as a result of its work with student veterans every year since 2009, placing it in the top 15 percent of all schools nationwide. That military tradition continues, albeit more formally, thanks to retired Lt. Col. Eric Patterson, director of veterans affairs.
JCU’s veteran program (jcu.edu/veterans) includes the Yellow Ribbon supplement that makes a John Carroll education tuition-free for veterans who are 100-percent eligible under the post-9/11 GI Bill, which covers about $18,000, with the remainder of tuition cost split between JCU and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Transitioning from the military to higher education can be difficult for veterans, but Carroll is trying to make that transition as smooth as possible. Generally, many veterans find it difficult for private schools to grant them academic credit for military training. Under current JCU policy, a veteran can receive an absolute minimum of six credit hours. The American Council on Education provides transcriptions to determine what it thinks veterans’ experiences equate to in terms of credit hours. JCU also worked with Ohio Senator Rob Portman to craft language that helped standardize educational transcripts so veterans who are trying to return to college can transfer credits they earned during military training seamlessly. This was adopted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
“On average, we are able to award an incoming student veteran between 10 to 12 credit hours for their military training and experience,” Patterson says. “The highest I’ve seen so far is 24 credit hours. Credit for military training is important because it recognizes service and counts for some elective credits, allowing student veterans to spend more time on the core curriculum and their degree program.”
Carroll’s Celebration of Service program, which began in February 2011, is a full-service, admission to graduation to employment program. It gives standard credits for physical education and military science for incoming veterans. Other common credits are in logistics, physics, health sciences, and education and allied studies.
Carroll, partly through Krysta Kurzynski, the assistant director of veterans affairs, advises student veterans academically and socially from the first day they start classes. The average age of a veteran coming to school is 26, making them nontraditional but still young, and with a broader perspective on life compared to their peers. It’s important to make sure veterans are on the right track, earning their degree as quickly as possible because they can only use the GI Bill once.
Eligible military veterans enrolled at JCU also can take advantage of a free meal plan and discounted apartment housing options. Additionally, Carroll opened a student veteran lounge (which features computers and drop screens) where veterans can relax with their peers in private, which helps with their transition. The veterans program shares this space with political science professor Jen Ziemke to interact with students in her crisis mapping class.
Recruiting student veterans
Recruiting military veterans to attend college is challenging, partly because they’re more difficult to find. The younger vets aren’t joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Legion groups like previous generations.
“They’re not joiners and tend not to group in their communities,” says retired Lt. Col. Eric Patterson, who has attended veteran job fairs to recruit but ended up talking to perhaps only one or two people in six hours.
The traditional job fair has been relatively ineffective, so Patterson tweaked his recruiting formula to include:
• A great web presence. GI jobs, military friendliness, vet educational guide, and a student website.
• The engagement factor. “If veterans contact us, if we respond quickly, and if they engage in a conversation with us, there’s about an 80 percent chance that the veteran will apply. We’re giving them an immediate sense of comfort that they’re not alone.”
• Educating about the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon program. “When a veteran is uninformed about the VA Yellow Ribbon program, then we’re often losing potential students because they see the difference in the baseline GI Bill annual tuition amount and the cost of JCU undergraduate education. The Yellow Ribbon program helps close that gap. We’ve begun educating young people about the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon when they enter the military by way of a partnership with Army Recruiting Command so that they can make an informed decision when they separate from the military.”
Patterson also has location on his side because Ohio is one of the top five bravest states, which means many young men and women in uniform come from Ohio. He sees a trend of student veterans, many of whom are first-generation college students, coming home to Cleveland.
Patterson’s hard work is paying off. JCU’s veterans program has increased from accepting 10 GI Bill students two years ago to 37 currently, with several dozen working applicants and prospects at any given time. All but five of the 37 have a pre-existing Cleveland connection.
Building on one’s strengths
Michael Snitzer ’16 is an example of a military man using Carroll’s veterans program to take the next step in his civilian life. The Cleveland Heights native joined the Army after graduating from Solon (Ohio) High School. Snitzer was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and was deployed to Baghdad in June 2006. He chose to become a military police soldier despite how heavily they are used overseas.
Snitzer’s 12-month deployment was extended to 15 months, and in July 2007, he was struck by a roadside bomb. He finished the rest of his tour in Iraq and returned to Fort Bragg, working as military police officer.
“When I was dealing with someone who used to be in combat and was being combative in a domestic situation, I had to use my ability to communicate, or as we called it ‘verbal Judo,’ to de-escalate situations,” he says. “In the military, I realized that even though I’m strong, I’m a lot smarter. It was at that point I started to think about college and pursuing a career that relies more on intellect than muscle.”
Snitzer did one more tour in Korea for 17 months and served a total of five years in the Army. He started at another college four days after he came home in May 2010.
“I would have called JCU right away had I known it was this easy to apply and use my GI Bill,” he says.
Snitzer, whose brother graduated from Carroll in 2005, knew about the higher expectations at JCU, so he sent an email and called Patterson, who returned his call.
“We talked about the military to warm up to each other, then started talking about my goals,” Snitzer says. “I still wasn’t 100-percent sure what I wanted to do, so Eric talked about the career center and the guidance I could receive there. I’m happy to be in a school that’s so welcoming to vets.”
Snitzer explored different majors and what he could do with them. He took an aptitude test, which told him he was one of a few people who score high on both sides of an opinion test in which he has his but understands others, a skill he developed as an MP. He thought about different majors but found his stride in communications.
“The communications department has taught me how to market myself,” he says. “My experience overseas has taught me the most effective weapon a person can wield is the ability to communicate. Every class I’ve taken at Carroll has helped me improve my ability to articulate an argument.”
A therapist in the making
Jason Simms ’15G is another military man who enrolled in Carroll’s veteran program. Simms grew up in Texas and moved around as a kid. He joined the military in 1990 at 22 and served 20 years. He’s been stationed throughout the world and served combat tours in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He retired in March 2011 and settled in his wife’s home state of Ohio. He found Carroll to be a fit because of the veterans program and the fact he didn’t want to just be another number.
“Eric Patterson has a nice personal touch,” he says. “He helps us with paperwork and is a great liaison with the VA. Eric also has a close relationship with the career center, so he’s helping provide us with the best environment possible.”
Most people commit to serving in the U.S. military for four or five years. Simms was like many and committed to five. Then he added an extra year because of a $5,000 bonus.
“At 23, very few people have the intent of putting in 20 years in the military,” he says.
Simms’ military career changed considerably though when he met his wife, who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We met at a party for a mutual friend,” he says. “During our first year, we spent more time apart, but she got used to it. The first eight years in the military, I was away 70 percent of the time, but my wife knew what she was getting into.”
Simms’ son and daughter were born in Spain and England during those first eight years in the Army. They’re now 12 and 8.
“When my daughter was 4 days old, I had to leave again,” he says. “I was gone for months. I came back when she was seven months old and six days later, we had to move back to the States.”
In the Army, Simms – who has three undergraduate degrees in Russian studies, Russian literature and psychology – was a crypto linguistics technician who learned Albanian and Croatian. Primarily an interpreter for the government, he spoke five languages. For the past three years, Simms has been a substance abuse counselor. His career choice was spurred by an event on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Simms was carrying a 60-pound radio on his back and got a rock in his boot, so he stopped to take off his backpack and noticed the guy behind him was drinking from a hip flask while carrying a gun.
“It woke me up to the substance abuse that was happening,” he says. “I told my superior and was told to forget it. Soon after, I volunteered for substance abuse therapy training.”
Simms spent four months in San Diego training to become a substance abuse counselor. That was followed by a one-year supervised internship. Then he became licensed and worked with clients who had depression and substance abuse problems, including teenage anxiety, marital issues, and bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders.
At Carroll, Simms is studying clinical and mental health. His experience is valued in the classroom because students can ask him an array of questions related to substance abuse and depression and he can add real-world experience to what professors are teaching. Simms is interested in learning more about the long-term therapy process and wants to work with police and veterans and their families. He plans to enter private practice after graduating.
“I prefer to be on my own,” he says, adding he wants to develop his own network of veterans through Patterson and local police departments. “I’ve worked for someone else my whole life.” JCU
Click here for more information about JCU’s veterans program.