[SVA sound creep up]
Stephen Smith: From A-P-M, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks Documentary: “From Boots to Books: Student Veterans and the New GI Bill.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Alright listen up, I’d like to welcome you guys to the second to last veterans’ club meeting of semester.
The Pasadena City College veterans club meets every Tuesday at noon. PCC is a community college outside of Los Angeles. Of its 25,000 students, some 800 are veterans.
Is there anybody first time here? Stand up, please say your name, service and what you’re majoring in.
Jose Garcia: Jose Garcia, I was in the Marine Corps and I’m majoring in psychology.
Students: Get some. Yeah! Get some!
About 30 people are sitting at tables lined up in rows. There are a few women here but most are guys in their 20s.
Student: Hurry up. Come up and get food.
Today, the club president is recruiting veterans to speak to a group of psychology students.
Club president: It’s a panel to discuss issues with PTSD and how you’re dealing with it, stuff like that.
[Background voices: Or not]
Or how you’re not dealing with it, yeah. Try not to scare them too much. They are civilians. [Laughter]. Alright, so don’t tell them everything. But put it out there so they get a little understanding of what we got.
After the meeting, Ricco Florom and Manny Arevalo hang around talking. They say all their friends at school are veterans.
Yeah, and it’s like, with us we all have a common ground, you know? The military.
It’s true. In Marine Corps, we’re all foul mouthed and we have bad attitudes. I mean, we can talk shared experiences, and like oh yeah I did that, too, or I did that or I know what you’re talking about, you know.
Ricco and Manny were both in the Marines. Manny served in Iraq. Ricco deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then we come to school with 18, 19-year-old kids, just graduated high school has no idea, he still lives at mom and dad’s in the basement doing whatever you know? Gets an allowance, and they never had to do anything, they’ve never been pushed to do anything. They never had to wake up at zero dark stupid and, you know, exercise.
Like, it’s just the lack of knowledge, you know what I mean? There so immature, like, “Hey, did you ever shoot somebody?” That is a very stupid question.
I mean, I’m not going to say that all civilians are…. [Different] Different. But I mean, I don’t really have anything in common with them. They have no idea about anything.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the longest in American history. Now they’re ending, and the men and women who served are coming home. Over nearly 15 years of war, more than a million servicepeople have left the military. And government projections say more than a million more will move into civilian life in the next few years. For many of them, the path back home leads through the nation’s colleges and universities.
News broadcast: They fought for their country and now their country is fighting for them. Today President Obama unveiled the details of the new and improved GI Bill at a ceremony in Fairfax.
The post-9/11 GI Bill took effect in August of 2009. It was the largest extension of educational benefits to veterans since WWII. Serve your country, the bill said, and the government will pay 100 percent of your education, plus give you money for housing and books.
Obama: you pick the school, we’ll help pick up the bill.
Veterans said, “Yes.” To date, more than 1 million veterans have used post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to go to college, at a cost of more than $40 billion. By default, American colleges and universities have become the frontlines of one of the great challenges posed by war: how to reintegrate the people who have served. But many schools are not ready.
Craig Bryan: Oh definitely not.
Craig Bryan is a psychologist at the University of Utah and the head of that school’s National Center for Veterans Studies.
Bryan: Everybody knows to have a link on your webpage that says, “Oh, are you a veteran?” and they have camouflage, and they have service members hugging their spouses and looking happy while they read a book. What we’re still trying to figure out here is: how do we best integrate veterans into college campuses and make sure that they are succeeding?
Over the coming hour, we’re going to hear from veterans at colleges across the country. And we’re going to start at Pasadena City College. We decided to go to PCC because it provides a lot more help to student veterans than most schools. Producer Samara Freemark spent some time with the students there.
Samara Freemark: I want to tell you about a Pasadena City College student named Robin Alparaz. For me, Robin’s story illuminates a lot of the ways that serving in the military can set you up to succeed in higher education….and also some of the ways it can set you up to fail. So. Let’s start with Robin, at age 21, coming off a bender.
Robin: I had this, like, moment of clarity, where I woke up just like really hungover. I thought, what am I doing with my life? Like, I’m living in squalor right now.
This was not the path Robin was supposed to be on. Growing up, he was a model immigrant’s son. His parents came to Los Angeles from the Philippines with the dream that their children would be educated here. But high school was hard for Robin. He got into drugs, moved out of his parents’ house and hit rock bottom.
Robin: I had a skateboard and a bus pass. I just started wandering around, and it was just like, oh okay, like, there’s a recruiting center, you know? So, I stepped into the recruiting center and I was just like, “I want to join.” It was almost like, okay, like this is my chance at a second chance.
Gia: We were surprised. Really, from what are experience is he’s not really into authority figures. So, we go, “ooookay.”
Robin and I are sitting with his mom Gia and his dad Greg in the living room of their condo in suburban Los Angeles. And honestly, it’s a little awkward. Robin looks incredibly uncomfortable listening to his parents talk about him when he’s right there.
Greg: When he signed up, I was pleasantly surprised. And I was telling my wife here, “It’s going to be good for him, teach him a lot of good stuff like being organized, being tough, you know all that stuff. I guess um…
Gia: It did.
Greg: Yep, it happened right?
Robin deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. And when he came back the next year, his time there had done everything his parents hoped it would.
Greg: I think that was a good learning experience for him.
Gia: It was good, I mean, at least…
Greg: He grew up. Just like butterflies would be, like, larvaes, right? And then they will be butterflies. I think that’s the way it was.
This is the kind of story the military loves. You take a deadbeat loser, and whip him into shape. And I have to say, it isn’t wrong, exactly. But there’s another version of the story of Robin’s time in Afghanistan. It’s the one he told me after his parents went to bed.
Robin: It sucked. It really sucked.
Robin’s job in Afghanistan was to aim the base’s Howitzers. Whenever his unit came under fire, everyone else would head for the bunker, and Robin would have to run out to the guns. And he says, “Yes,” he guesses Afghanistan taught him something. Patience, maybe. Coping with adversity. How to stay awake for days at a time. But mostly, it just seemed pointless.
Robin: No matter how many targets we eliminated, they just kept coming. Just all day, all night and, it sort of just hit me, you can die at any second. Any time. At random. Like, this is real. I don’t know why it took me so long to think about this. This shit’s real.
But something else happened while he was deployed. His parents sent him a Kindle. And he started reading.
Robin: I was getting into the Game of Thrones, so I started reading the books and, it took, it was just sort of like, man this is, this is really hard [laughs]. So I started reading Harry Potter, and I finished all the Harry Potter books. So I just, gradually, built myself up to a level where I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I was just like, “Wow, this is really cool.” Like, I mean, this guy wrote in like the 1800s, and it’s still kind of relevant you know?
So in a weird way, Army life taught Robin to love reading. He even started to write a little while he was deployed, and he began to think he might be good at it. So when he got back from Afghanistan, he started thinking seriously about leaving the military and going to college. He also started thinking seriously… about killing himself.
Robin: I guess like everything that we did out there started to hit me. Like, whoa, that was really, that was really an insane experience. And um, I was just scared, like scared and angry is the only way I put it. Like nothing would calm me down.
Robin was prescribed anti-depressants, but things got worse. One night he took five-weeks worth of pills. Friends from his unit got him to the hospital, and he turned out okay, but the Army medically retired him with a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. When he got out, he enrolled at a state college in Kansas.
Robin: It was a nice school, you know, it was a really nice school, nice little college town. But I had, like, no real support group out there, you know? And I was just trying to make it out on my own with really nothing. And, it’s difficult, and things were getting really hard for me.
Robin drove back to California, moved back in with his parents. He still had GI Bill money, so he figured he might as well give school another try. And that’s how he ended up at Pasadena City College, which is where we are at 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, inside PCC’s veterans’ resource center. About 15 students are hanging around. They’re drinking coffee and eating cookies. One guy’s holding the leash on a massive German shepherd wearing a service vest.
A woman named Sindy Montoya is sitting on a sofa in the back of the room. She tells me she’s a psychology major, but the real reason she enrolled at PCC was for the GI Bill benefits. That monthly check means an apartment for her and her daughter.
Sindy: For now, this is my resource to house my child, pay rent, get food, pay the bills. This is the only resource until I get a job.
In the army, Sindy earned a salary. She had a new car. She had money in her pocket. But when she got out, all that disappeared. She couldn’t find work, and she actually became homeless for a while.
Sindy: Even if you get out, you’ll be from the military, so you should come out and have something good, that’s what I thought when joining it but, no, like, I’ve gone out and I’ve got shit, like, nothing. Like, you feel like trash.
When Sindy joined the Army, the recruiter told her she’d learn all these valuable career skills. She had this image in her head – she’d spend a couple of years enlisted, and then get out and have job offers lined up around the block.
Sindy: Coming out, I feel like I’m worth nothing. Like, I did so much in the military. I loved my job in there, but, there’s no major for my job. You know? I did ammunition and explosives. There’s no major for that. There’s nothing that, like, transfers over. So, it’s like, I wasted all of this time, you know? And then like, when am I going to bomb something? You know, blow something up? You know?
Sindy had just seen a posting for a job she thought she could get, and she was thinking about dropping out.
Sindy: I went on usajobs.com, you know, government jobs, so I’m like, I qualify to be like a prison guard.
Sindy came here today to run this idea by one of the veterans’ center’s employees, Carol Calandra. We go into Carol’s office. She has flags from each branch of the military hanging on the wall, and a fish tank bubbling in the corner.
Calandra: Have you even looked at the qualifications of what it takes to be a prison guard?
Sindy: I looked at it.
Calandra: And what does it say?
Sindy: I’m good to go. What do you think?
Calandra: I don’t think it’s a good idea. What about your education?
Sindy: It’s going to take me a long time to finally be the minimum of something in my educational goal.
Calandra: But you have to start slow, and you have to get where you’re going.
Sindy: Like, I thought that I like wasted time. Like…
Sindy: Yes, I did. Because all my friends already graduated. They’re already starting something, they’re already someone, you know? And I’m not. And I don’t want to keep doing this school if I’m only going to do it to like, have a place to stay, to have my bills paid and everything. I need a job.
Calandra: You don’t need a job. You need a career. And without an education, you’re not going to have a career.
Sindy: Pfft. Fine. But I don’t want to do this. I have this mood, like, and it just hits me, like I don’t want to be around people. Like, I don’t know, I’m going to explode. I can’t be here. And I’m just like you know what, fuck everything.
Calandra: Alright, then you know we just gotta dust ourselves off and figure it out again.
Calandra: You know I love you, right?
Sindy: I know, I know you love me. She does.
Calandra: Stubborn as a mule.
Sindy: Super stubborn.
Calandra: Super stubborn.
Carol Calandra started at PCC in 2006 as a student. She had gone back to school in her 40s to study counseling. And she started seeing veterans showing up in her classes.
Calandra: Veteran after veteran, you know they’re in class with no books, or they’re in class with, you know, no backpack.
The veterans would talk about getting hammered at bars, or the problems they were having with their wives, or about how they were sleeping in their trucks because their GI Bill checks hadn’t shown up yet. And Carol just thought….no.
Calandra: My father in law was a prisoner of war, two of my uncles went to Vietnam, both of them came back extremely changed men. And something just clicked, something just clicked with me, and I went, “Hell no. Not on my watch. Not this generation.”
Around this same time, an academic counselor at PCC named Patty D’Orange-Martin started to notice the same problems. Patty is married to a veteran, and her son serves in the Navy. So she became a kind of an informal mentor to the student veterans on campus.
D’Orange-Martin: We really had not seen veterans that were having this difficult of a time to transition since the Vietnam War.
This new generation of returning veterans was being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries at alarmingly high rates, sometimes as high as 30 percent. Now, there are services out there for wounded veterans, but a lot of the guys Patty was seeing were nervous about going to the VA, or didn’t even know about its programs.
And even students without diagnoses were struggling to adapt to college. Veterans are statistically more likely to be the first in their families to go to college, and so the whole world of higher education can be confusing to many of them. Patty managed to convince PCC’s administration to give her a job working specifically with veterans, and she hired Carol Calandra to help her.
Calandra: We took it upon ourselves to look at the veteran as a whole and look at all the things it would take for a veteran to succeed in school. I mean, if you’re hungry, or you’re homeless, you’re not going to do well on that math test. So, you know, we looked at it from that aspect – of how, in the big picture, can we help veterans succeed here.
The military calls the process of leaving the service “separation.” And you might think separation comes with an elaborate system of mental decompression and counseling. But you would be wrong.
D’Orange-Martin: I mean I, literally, will be emailing with someone in Afghanistan or in Iraq, and they will be coming back on a certain day and maybe two or three days later classes start. So, we literally have had people come home on a Friday or a Saturday and start school on a Monday. So, that’s not much of a transition.
If you’re leaving the service and you want to go on to college, the military offers you a two-day program to tell you about your options. Veterans’ advocates I’ve spoken with say the course is better than what the military used to have, which was not much of anything at all. But for the most part, they’re underwhelmed. They describe long, monotonous briefings — the phrase, “death by PowerPoint,” comes up a lot — so a lot of the heavy lifting of transition falls to the institutions where veterans end up after they leave the service.
And for students who choose higher education that often means community colleges. There are more than 50,000 veterans at community colleges in California alone.
Calandra: I mean, they’re coming, and they will continue to come.
Carol Calandra says the problem is, programs like PCC’s are really hard to find.
Calandra: And you have campuses that have nothing. You know, you have a group of veterans that are like, you know, “we’re the veterans’ club of X college, and we don’t have a resource center, we don’t have this, we don’t even have a counselor.” That’s kind of mind blowing.
Fewer than one in five colleges and universities have designated spaces for veterans like PCC’s resource center. And other things PCC does, like tutoring and disability services specifically for veterans are rarer still.
Calandra: We scratch our head and go, “why aren’t you doing this?”
One reason, of course, is that no one is making them. The federal government doesn’t require schools to offer any veterans services as a condition of accepting GI Bill money. And so programs like PCC’s live and die by the decisions of college administrators like Cynthia Olivo. She’s PCC’s Associate Vice President of Student Affairs. Olivo hadn’t thought much about veterans until Patty introduced her to a couple of students.
Olivo: When you have a veteran standing in front of you, talking about the sacrifices that they made in their lives, it’s a very compelling narrative and it’s one that does require pause. And respect. And resources.
Olivo convinced the administration to invest those resources. Today, PCC spends about $200,000 a year on its veterans’ programs. Of course, some of this is probably motivated by self-interest: if you invest in good veterans services, presumably you’ll attract more student veterans, and with them, more GI Bill money. But this is a calculation that most schools don’t make.
D’Orange-Martin: For some of those schools that really don’t have, or haven’t had, a lot of veterans’ services, you know that question has been asked: “Why is it falling on us?”
This is Patty again.
D’Orange-Martin: Well, I mean, what is the alternative? If community college, where the majority of veterans attend, do not provide services for them, who’s going to do it? You know, it’s kind of like Congress wrote this check, you know, for the GI Bill, and now they’re coming back but there’s no provisions for how we’re going to take care of them. Really, we are, we’re, that safety net. We are on the front lines with them to try to get them to transition.
Help with that transition can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out. That’s what happened with Robin Alparaz. He was the guy stationed in Afghanistan, who enrolled at a college in Kansas and then dropped out right away.
But when he arrived at PCC, Patty and Carol told him about a program they offered specifically to help the student veterans having the most trouble adjusting to civilian life. They were calling it the ‘veterans’ cohort.’
Robin: And I was just like, ok, what does that mean? You know? And they were just like, “we’re going to get a bunch of you guys together,” you know college freshman, “and you guys are going to take classes together so the adjustment will be smooth.”
The cohort takes four classes together first semester. One is an introduction to higher education class. One is an English credit. One is a science. And the fourth is called the Personal Development Class, but everyone just calls it, “Boots to Books.” The class teaches practical skills, like how to take notes. But there’s also a lot of time spent on things like post-traumatic stress and depression.
Robin: I remember the first day, in the first like 20 minutes, it was just dead silence until people started introducing themselves. And then from there it was just sort of like, it felt like we became, like, a small platoon.
This is Robin again.
Robin: They taught us how to study, you know, like, how to prioritize your time, how to talk to people. Small talk, like I had to relearn small talk. They taught us how to adjust to becoming a, like a functioning civilian again. So that was pretty cool.
Alex Arguelles: All right, good evening professor and Boots to Books class. My name is Alex Arguelles and I will be doing my life-plan presentation. I will start off with a little background on myself…
One night at PCC, I went to the final session of the semester’s Boots to Books class. It’s taught by Patty’s husband, Harold Martin. He’s a Vietnam veteran and a psychology professor here. About 12 guys were scattered across a big classroom.
Their last assignment was to write an essay about where they had come from and where they hoped to go. And then they had to stand at a podium and present it to the class.
Alex: I was born in South Los Angeles, California. And I’m a first-generation American.
Everyone in the room was nervous, and things started off with a lot of joking around.
Alex had put together a PowerPoint, and the class thought this was very ‘fancy’.
[Background Voices: Gonna use the PowerPoint? Whoa! He did a whole…video and everything…is there music?]
But things quickly got serious. Alex finished, a couple of more guys went, and then a veteran named Josh got up.
Josh: I don’t know all of your stories. I don’t know most of them. I’ve learned a few of them today. Maybe some of you are where I was six to eight months ago. To those going through losing their home, or having chaos envelope them, there are others who recognize your struggle and you’re not alone.
Josh talked about how, when he first started school, he was living in his RV. And how hopeless that had made him feel.
Josh: I keep it mostly to myself, and I guess, if I had a point to what all this was, it was that we’re all in this struggle together. All of the cataclysmic events, all the things that are so hard to handle, all the things that you’ve seen. We’re all in it together and we’re all there.
I was standing next to Josh this whole time, recording him. I had my head down. I didn’t want to get in his way or make him more nervous than he already was. And the whole time Josh was talking, I was wondering what was going on out there in the audience. This was a class of combat veterans. I kind of expected some eye rolling. But when Josh was done, I looked up. And about half the guys were wiping their eyes.
One of them was Jonathan Richie, who got up next.
Jonathon Richie: It’s taken me a lot of courage and strength to stand here before you today and admit that I tried to kill myself. Sorry guys. I am a statistic of a veteran suicide. When you tell somebody that’s not a room full of veterans, and you go up to someone and you say, “Hey, why’d you get out of the Marine Corps,” I can’t sit there and say that I tried to kill myself and they kicked me out. You can’t tell somebody that cause then they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy, you know? So I got to make up a story, I have a story and it sucks. But you know, for you guys, it felt good to release it. It felt good to know that I could sit here and you guys aren’t judging cause we’ve all been there. Think about your brother, think about your brother. How many people right next to you are having problems at home? Josh, I love you brother, I had no idea. I had no idea man. I live right in Glendale, if you need me call me. We need to bond, we need to be close. And this class brought a lot of us closer together. People right next to you have been through stuff. You may not even know it. Thank you.
Here’s what I thought about, while I was standing there with Josh and Jonathan and the rest of the class: I thought about how colleges are being asked to assume roles most of them are not really prepared to take.
Not every veteran needs things like the Boots to Books class. Many student veterans do fine in school – better than fine. A lot of people leave the military determined and focused, and they ace college. But many student veterans do need help. And most of them aren’t in places where they’ll find it.
Martin: Higher education moves very slowly. And we don’t have the time.
This is Harold Martin, who teaches the Boots to Books class.
Martin: Somebody who is depressed now, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, who needs to start college right now and needs some direction and purpose in their life … we don’t have the time, we don’t have the luxury of taking five years to get a veterans’ resource center on the campus. We don’t. Where’s the pressure? Where’s the commitment? We’ve got all these bumper stickers and flags and everything, but that’s not enough. That doesn’t help you get through school, that doesn’t deal with a traumatic brain injury, it doesn’t help you get through tough classes where you feel like you’re in over your head. So that’s the kind of support I’m talking about, that they need, you know. And that kind of support, we’re still grappling with that.
Smith: You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “From Boots to Books: student veterans and the New GI Bill.” That story was produced by Samara Freemark. I’m Stephen Smith.
We checked in with PCC veterans Sindy Montoya and Robin Alparaz at the end of the semester.
Robin was doing great. He finished the year with a 4.0 grade point average and transferred to a four-year school, Arizona State. He’ll be studying English literature there, and he’s working on a novel about his time in Afghanistan. He says he’s finally starting to make some civilian friends.
But Sindy had disappeared. Carol Calandra told us that she had dropped out and moved to Las Vegas. Carol hoped that Sindy would go back to school one day. But mostly, she hoped Sindy and her daughter were okay.
[Music comes back]
Archive: The greatest invasion in all history, a million veterans pouring onto the college campuses of America, from Harvard to Stanford, from State to Old Siwash…
The original GI Bill of 1944 revolutionized higher education in the United States and helped build the American middle class. Veterans advocates hope the post-9/11 GI Bill will have a similar effect.
Alex McCoy: I think that the military and the GI Bill is kind of one of the last, great economic ladders for people like me.
You can learn more about the GI Bill at our web site, American RadioWorks.org. You can also see photos of PCC student veterans and find data on how schools are supporting their student veterans — or not. That’s americanradioworks.org. We’d also like to know what impact American RadioWorks’ stories have on you. Has this documentary or any other we’ve made changed how you think about an issue? Has it led you to do something like start a conversation or try and change something in society? Go to americanradioworks.org and let us know.
Support for this program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We’ll have more in a moment from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: For many veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, college has been the place to transition back into the civilian world.
That’s a role that higher education has played for a very long time.
From A-P-M, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary “From Boots to Books: Student Veterans and the New GI Bill.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Archive: It’s war! The greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865.
The year was 1932. The country was in the teeth of the great depression. Congress announced it was cutting the bonuses it had promised to the men who fought in WWI. Tens of thousands of them marched on Washington.
Archive: From these jobless men came a grave rumbling that carried to the nation’s capital, as thousands of ex-servicemen converged on the White House itself. Their cry was, “Give us our war bonus, now!”
These so-called ‘Bonus Marchers’ set up camp and refused to move. President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to clear them out. Soldiers threw tear gas at former soldiers and burned their tents.
Archive: The orders of the president must be obeyed! And the roaring flames sound the death knell to the fantastic Bonus Army in the shadow of the beautiful dome of the Capitol of the United States of America.
Michael Gambone: It was a fiasco.
Michael Gambone is a Professor of History at Kutztown University and author of a book about the GI Bill.
Gambone: Politically it was a disaster for Hubert Hoover. And it was an embarrassment, and, in no way, shape or form did anyone want a repeat of that.
In the next election, Hoover was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and FDR learned from his predecessor’s mistakes. From the very start of WWII, Roosevelt began planning for post-war recovery. Here he is giving a fireside chat on the radio in 1943.
Archive of FDR: Among many other things we are, today, laying plans for the return to civilian life of our gallant men and women in the armed services. They must not be demobilized into an environment of inflation and unemployment, to a place on the bread line, or on a corner selling apples.
In June of 1944, Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law. It was a comprehensive support package for veterans, covering everything from hospital fees to low-interest housing loans to education.
Archive: The GI Bill of Rights is not a reward, or a hand out or a gravy train. But rather an American way to make it easier for each man to take his place once again in the community and get some of those things for which he went to war. A job, a business, an education, a home. [Music]
Of those benefits, lawmakers thought the ones that would matter most were jobs and housing.
Gambone: No one thought the educational provisions would be very important.
Here’s Michael Gambone again.
Gambone: Education at that level was a rare dream for most people. You know, upper-middle class and upper-class people, exclusively.
In 1945, fewer than half of Americans had even a high school diploma. But the GI Bill changed all that.
Archive: The Queen Mary recently arrived in New York with over 14,000 American Army and Navy men, returning from victory in Europe.
After the war the number of returning soldiers was staggering.
Archive: Add the fact that she was bringing thousands of Americans home, and we can guess what a welcome sight she was. [Music].
Sixteen million people left the military in two years, and many went to school. Around half of the veterans used the GI Bill for education, many for technical training. And more than 2 million GIs went to college. Even the most elite schools were flooded with GI applicants.
Archive: The greatest invasion in all history, a million veterans pouring onto the college campuses of America, from Harvard to Stanford, from State to Old Siwash.
Gambone: The GI Bill could pay for Harvard. Or could pay to go back to school to finish high school, or you could become an electrician. The range of education you could achieve was extremely broad.
Still, not everyone believed allowing the masses into college was such a good idea.
Robert Beckstrand: They thought the veterans were going to be some playboys.
Veteran Robert Beckstrand went to Oberlin College, in Ohio. He was recorded for an oral history project in 1995. Beckstrand says professors at many colleges worried that returning soldiers would rather party than study. One university president even wrote that GIs would turn campuses into, “educational hobo jungles.”
Beckstrand: And the faculties everywhere I guess were amazed to see, they were really eager to get to work and do well.
Gambone: All the bad predictions didn’t come true, but schools changed. Professors did as well, pedagogy had to change because the students were more prone to ask questions and challenge ideas and it kind of shook up higher Ed as it was.
By 1947, almost half of all college students were veterans. And they completely transformed the feel of college campuses. They rejected many traditions of the old boys’ network.
Gambone: Freshman who came in had to wear beanies, and that identified them as first year students. And GIs would just refuse to wear ‘em. There were even park benches on campuses that were designated for upperclassman and same result.
Veterans didn’t have time for that kind of thing. Bill Orr served on a naval repair and supply ship in the Pacific, and then attended the University of Minnesota.
Bill Orr: Well you know, when you think about it, the veterans coming back were like 27, 28-years-old, and the high school kids are like, 21. You take two people, one that’s 28 and one that’s 21 and get ’em in a conversation and, it’s something to laugh at.
Smith: Well, especially if one of them’s been in combat and one of them’s been at the soda fountain.
Orr: Yes, that’s true.
Gambone: It broke down that barrier.
Historian Michael Gambone.
Gambone: You take an institution that had been exclusive and pretty rarified and really what you’re doing is democratizing it. You know, the expectation became that education was more and more a right than a privilege.
If the goal of the GI Bill was to avoid another depression, it worked. It helped lead to a massive expansion not of only higher education, but of the U.S. economy as a whole. Congress estimated that for every dollar spent under the original GI Bill, the economy got $7 back. And it did something a bit more intangible. The GI Bill helped veterans climb the social ladder, and it brought their families up with them.
Orr: But you know it affected an awful lot of people.
This is veteran Bill Orr again.
Orr: We ended up after I graduated from college I think I still had about $500 in the bank or something like that, maybe even a little more than that.
Dan Tengwall: Sorry I need to interrupt here.
Orr’s grandson Dan is sitting with him at his local County Veterans’ Services Office.
Tengwall: How many children did you have?
Orr: I didn’t have any, my wife had all of ’em.
Tengwall: (laughs) Well, he had his, ok, great. Rita had nine kids. If you wouldn’t have had the GI Bill, would you have been able to support nine children?
Orr: Boy that’s a good question.
Tengwall: I happen to think that if he didn’t have the GI Bill, I don’t know if I’d be sittin’ here.
[Bill Orr laughs].
Smith: How many of those kids went to college?
Orr: All nine of my kids went to school after HS.
And their kids did too. Orr’s grandson Dan is part of that current generation. He’s also a member of the MN National Guard and he’s hoping to use his GI Bill benefits to get a master’s degree.
The GI Bill funded the education of three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, 14 Nobel Prize winners and two dozen Pulitzer Prize Winners. It increased the country’s intellectual capital exponentially, and helped build the professional middle class.
Educational benefits for veterans persisted in some form through the years. There was a GI Bill for veterans of Korea and Vietnam, and another one signed in 1984 called the Montgomery GI Bill. But over time the value of the benefits eroded, as higher education got more expensive. By 2007 the GI Bill couldn’t cover the cost of education at many schools.
Obama: Education is the currency that can purchase success in the 21st Century. And, this is the opportunity that our troops have earned.
That’s why passage of the post-9/11 GI Bill was such a victory for veterans. Under the law, the government will pay for up to four years of college, and the bill was designed to return to the goals of the original GI Bill, in WWII — to give veterans the opportunity to rise up through society. American RadioWorks producer Suzanne Pekow looks at whether it’s fulfilling that promise.
Suzanne Pekow: Wick Sloane teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. A few years ago, he started noticing more veterans on campus.
Wick Sloane: Well veterans started showing up in my classes.
One Army veteran in particular really impressed him.
Sloane: The first paper he handed in was so good I knew that we just had to move him on.
He encouraged the student to apply to Dartmouth.
Sloane: He thought this was absolutely the craziest suggestion anybody could possibly have made.
It didn’t sound that crazy to Sloane. But he wondered if this student might be right – that he wasn’t the kind of guy who belonged at an Ivy League School. Sloane decided to check it out. He asked around to see how many veterans end up at elite colleges.
Sloane: Yale has three, Princeton has one, Harvard had four, Williams has zero. It’s appalling.
Sloane writes a column for the trade publication Inside Higher Ed. Every year since 2011, he’s published a tally of the number of veterans at the nation’s most selective schools. And he hasn’t seen the needle move at all.
Sloane: They could have as many as they wanted. The same way they could have as many trombonists and physicists and football players as they wanted. But, if you want to bring in vets you have to adapt and do some work.
The post-9/11 GI Bill was supposed to change where veterans could go to college, by giving them more money, and therefore, more options. But since the new bill went into effect in 2009, the percentage of veterans enrolling at four-year public and private nonprofit schools has barely budged and some people say that’s a problem.
Andrew Bacevich: Like it or not, the way our country works, the way American society works, it’s those selective institutions that produce the next generation of an elite.
Andrew Bacevich is a political scientist who writes about the American military. He’s also a retired Army colonel.
Bacevich: From those institutions come the people who will influence the direction of society – Supreme Court Justices, or senators, or presidents, or CEOs of major corporations. And I would argue, that in particular for a country that places such emphasis on maintaining and using military power, I would argue that it’s very important for that elite to include some number of people who have had first-hand military experience.
In 2008, the year before the post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, about a third of student veterans went to four-year public or private colleges. Today, about a third still do. The rest go to for-profit schools and community colleges. But the student veteran population is growing fastest at the for-profits.
Gus Giacoman: They don’t have to go to Harvard, you know? I just want a veteran to go to the very best school that they can.
This is Gus Giacoman. He’s a veteran, and he runs an organization called Service to School. Giacoman thinks a disproportionate number of veterans end up at for profits because, by and large, those are the schools aggressively recruiting them.
Giacoman: Veterans are targets for for-profits, because of the GI Bill money. I remember when I was an officer, and I was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State, who came to campus and recruited? Or talked about college? Strayer talked about college. Corinthian College talked about college. So that’s who comes on military bases.
Now, for profit schools can be a good choice for students. They offer flexibility. They’re more likely than nonprofits to make it easy to take classes in the evenings or online.
But the for-profit sector has been investigated by the US Senate because the schools outcomes are so poor, and tuition is so high. Students at for-profits are much less likely to finish than people who go to other colleges. And for-profits cost almost twice as much as public schools. Since the post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, taxpayers have spent $7.9 billion to send veterans to for-profits. That’s more GI Bill money than went to all public colleges in America put together.
Giacoman: We are as a nation are investing a lot in the GI Bill.
This is Gus Giacoman again.
Giacoman: And we want that GI Bill money to give us the best return that we can. And the best return, in my mind, is having an education that’s going to set someone up to be extremely productive in society.
Studies show that people who attend four-year colleges are likely to earn much more over a lifetime than people who don’t. Service to School, works to get more veterans in to those colleges. Giacoman says administrators tell him they want veteran students, but they don’t know how to get them.
Catharine Bond Hill: What we found was that veterans weren’t in our applicant pool.
This is Catharine Bond Hill, she’s President of Vassar College in New York. Hill has spent her career thinking deeply about the question of how to get underrepresented students into selective schools like Vassar. For a long time she focused on low income and minority students. But a few years ago, Hill realized there was a group she’d overlooked. Almost no veterans were showing up on her campus.
Hill: And I think that the exact same lessons from trying to increase racial diversity and socio-economic diversity hold for veterans. You have to go look for them and you have to convince them that this is a good option for them.
Hill realized she couldn’t sit back and wait for veterans to come. So she teamed up with an organization called the Posse Program, which helps Vassar identify promising veteran applicants. Today, Vassar has about 40 veterans on campus. Two other selective colleges are also working with Posse to recruit veterans, and the program plans to expand to other schools.
Hill: If we could get 10 schools to do it, it would be 400.
But more than a million veterans have used the post-9/11 GI Bill to go to school since 2009. And many colleges don’t recruit veterans aggressively. Many of them actually discourage veterans from applying – not on purpose, but by assuming their applicants are all fresh-faced teenagers.
Alex McCoy: Schools nowadays, I think, have this box that you need to fit in.
Alex McCoy is a former Marine who guarded U.S. embassies overseas. After six years in the service, he decided to go to college. He started applying to schools but he got frustrated pretty quickly.
McCoy: They just couldn’t understand that I was not a high school senior.
College application forms just weren’t written for guys like him. One school required a letter of recommendation from his high school guidance counselor.
McCoy: I said, okay, but, my high school guidance counselor has long since retired and lives in Florida now, and I don’t even have the first idea of how to contact them. And even if I were, they would not remember me anyway.
Now, Alex didn’t do great in high school. But he says his years in the Marines made him more mature.
McCoy: I refuse to be defined by who I was before I served. And who I am now is so much stronger and so much more driven than who I was before. And that’s who I want a college to see.
He got a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer; a letter from an official at the Department of State and a letter from the US Ambassador to Germany. But schools didn’t seem to care. Then, he heard about Columbia University in New York. Columbia has a college especially for non-traditional Students: The School of General Studies. It was founded to serve GIs returning from World War II. But in the decades that followed, veteran enrollment dropped and other non-traditional students took their place.
Curtis Rodgers: you know, they’re dancers, they’re actors, they’re musicians, they’re former models.
This is Curtis Rodgers, Vice Dean of Admissions. When the post-9/11 GI Bill came along, Rodgers thought, “Here’s a chance to return GS to its roots.” He started heavily recruiting veterans. In 2008 there were just 60. By fall of 2014, there were more than 400. One of them was Alex McCoy.
McCoy: So here I am, sitting on campus, looking at the big, you know, domed libraries and this amazing architecture, and all the preppy students walking around with their Columbia Sweatshirts and, I thought, “wow, I, I snuck in somehow.”
A lot of servicemembers assume they can’t get into places like Columbia. And even the people who are supposed to be helping them, sometimes aim too low. Curtis Rodgers goes to a lot of military installations as part of his recruiting efforts. At one base, an education officer asked him:
Rodgers: “Why are you here?” It was [breath] a bit of a jarring moment but it wasn’t the first time I had ever encountered that. And the idea of, “Why are you here?” was went on to say, these students can’t go to Columbia University. They’re not ready for a place like that. And to me, that seemed ridiculous because you know, I really should be the judge of that.
Rodgers says the veterans he’s admitted have succeeded at Columbia. But just as importantly, he says, the experiences they’ve had while serving add to their value in the classroom.
Rodgers: Those experiences inform the way you view the world, they inform he way you think about problems, they inform your intellectual path, what you want to do in the future. And, you know, that’s what we’re seeking out. We want students who have those experiences because it changes the conversation. And you want a diverse student population because that, you know, that makes the discourse that much deeper.
Professor: This is usual in more situations, there’s always such a… [Trails off]
This Middle Eastern studies class is called: “Post-Occupation Iraqi Narrative” it’s a small seminar, just seven students. Two of them are veterans who served in Iraq.
Today, the class is discussing the looting of antiquities that happened after American troops invaded Iraq in 2003. One young woman says American soldiers ruthlessly destroyed Iraqi art.
Woman: But I think that in the war, particularly, that there were aspects of Iraqi culture that were deliberately targeted.
One of the veterans disagrees with her. His name is Kevin Anderson.
Kevin Anderson: To be fair, so, most of what was destroyed was, there was a lot of effort placed on preservation.
Kevin tells the class that the military did work to preserve cultural artifacts. In fact that was one of the jobs his Army unit did when he deployed to Iraq.
Anderson: But, we preserved most historical remnants of everything.
Kevin is 31. He’s a junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies. He says when he first got to campus, he was intimidated by how smart the students seemed, those who had come straight from high school. But after a few months he realized that, in a lot of ways, he knew more about the world than they did.
[Sounds from Kevin Anderson’s home]
Kevin and his wife Kalie live about an hour and a half from Columbia, in Bethel Connecticut, with their 2-year-old son, Jackson.
Jackson: I want my blue hat!
Kalie: Which hat do you want? You can only wear one at a time.
Jackson: Um, Columbia hat.
Kalie and Kevin are getting Jackson ready for daycare. It’s early spring and it’s chilly outside, so Jackson chooses a blue, wool hat with a Columbia University logo on it.
Anderson: You want to bring that one with you?
Anderson: All right, well, put it in your backpack.
Kevin and Kalie met as Army medics in Afghanistan.
Anderson: She used to go buy crappy movies on the local economy, and we’d sit up all night and watch them, and then, I don’t know, it just kind of went from there.
Kevin and Kalie are both using their GI-Bill benefits to get their degrees. She’s at NYU. Neither of them ever thought they’d end up at top-tier schools.
Anderson: [laughs] No… No! No.
Kalie: I mean, growing up in Indiana I’d never heard of like Columbia or NYU – they just didn’t talk about schools on the East Coast.
Before the military, Kevin was a police officer and Kalie worked the counter at a bowling alley. Now, Kevin says he’s thinking about going to law school when he graduates. Kalie would like to work in human resources. They want to move out of their apartment and buy a house. But the most important thing college has given their family is more options for their son.
Pekow: Would you ever want your son to enlist?
Anderson and Kalie: No.
Anderson: My son’s not enlisting in the service. Because I busted my ass to make enough money so he doesn’t have to.
It’s clear that more veterans could go to four-year colleges, and thrive there, if only these schools would do more to recruit and support them. Columbia’s School of General Studies is proof that if colleges try harder to open their doors, veterans will come. They’ll succeed. And they’ll collect on the promise that the country made when they signed up – that they’d come out of the Armed Services better than when they went in, with better chances for the future.
Pekow: Can you imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t join the military?
McCoy: [Laughs] Um, well, I was working at Subway making sandwiches at the time so I don’t know what I would’ve done.
This is Columbia student Alex McCoy again.
McCoy: I would not be here. I don’t know if I would’ve done college. I would probably be doing a service job somewhere. That’s kind of a scary thought. I think that the military and the GI Bill is one of the last great economic ladders for people like me. And I really strongly believe that you shouldn’t just get one shot at life, and getting that second chance is something that I really value about the military and about Columbia for letting me be here.
Smith: That story was produced by Suzanne Pekow.
The post-911 GI Bill has given more than a million veterans the chance to go to school. Over the coming years, more than a million more will use their GI Bill benefits for education.
The benefits may seem generous, but the GI Bill was not designed to be a handout to veterans or to colleges. It was designed to be an investment. And that investment can only pay off if more veterans get into the best schools that they can, and get the help they need to get to graduation.
“From Boots to Books: Student Veterans and the New GI Bill” was produced by Samara Freemark with Suzanne Pekow, Ryan Katz, and me, Stephen Smith. It was edited by Catherine Winter and mixed by Craig Thorson. The web producer is Andy Kruse.
The American RadioWorks team includes Emily Hanford, Sasha Aslanian, Peter Clowney, Ellen Guettler and Emily Haavik.
We have more on our website, including archival photos of World War II GIs and more information on what kinds of schools today’s veterans are choosing. That’s at americanradioworks.org. While you’re there, check out the archive of more than 100 documentary projects and sign up for our weekly education podcast.
We’d also love to hear what this documentary made you think about, and whether you have experience with the GI Bill. You can send us comments at our website, you can also tell us about it on Facebook at american.radioworks or on Twitter at AMRadioWorks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is APM, American Public Media.