The number of military veterans enrolled at CLU has tripled in three years, as troops return and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits kick in. Communication major Jeanette Zimmerman and other veterans are working on a smooth transition.
By Fred Alvarez
The transition from soldier to student wasn’t an easy one for CLU senior Luis Peña.
Following two tours in and near Iraq, during which the Marine Corps machine-gunner ran combat missions and delivered humanitarian aid, Peña returned home in 2003 to find the pieces of his once orderly life jagged and out of place.
He was quick to anger and struggled with feelings of isolation. He lashed out at those closest to him and distrusted anyone he didn’t know.
The Oxnard resident said he felt out of place in a world at peace, as if he had spent the four years following high school graduation sliding sideways while all those around him had moved forward with their lives.
Then Peña landed at CLU, drawn by its small campus and its welcoming community. He was buoyed by the openness and support of students and staff, and impressed by the classes and teaching faculty.
Most of all, he said, he felt safe to explore his academic interests, taking on a double major of Spanish and art. He is preparing now to graduate in the spring and pursue an advanced degree.
“I felt really comfortable, like I could let go of everything and actually study, learn something, and see life from a different perspective,” said Peña, 31, who has used Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to pay for much of his CLU education.
“There’s something about a person who goes overseas and does his duty – you come back and you feel like you have missed so much of your life,” he said. “I felt like I had lost myself for a couple of years. Cal Lutheran helped me find my way back.”
Marching Home to Study
Peña is part of a wave of military veterans across the country who are returning from combat zones and heading to the classroom, aided by federal programs designed to ease the shift to civilian life. Nationwide, more than a half-million military veterans have used the benefits of a revamped GI Bill to return to school in the nearly three years since the program took effect, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA has paid out more than $11.5 billion in GI Bill benefits since 2009, and officials expect to see a rise in the number of service members tapping those subsidies with the end of military operations in Iraq and the announced drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.
At CLU, enrollment of military veterans has tripled in three years, from just 29 veterans in the fall of 2008 to 93 in fall 2011.
CLU is one of more than 2,600 colleges and universities nationwide participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program, a provision of the GI Bill in which the federal government and universities share some of the cost of attending more-expensive private institutions. The program benefits military veterans who have served at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001.
Under an agreement forged with the VA in 2009, CLU awards up to $2,500 per school year to eligible veterans, and the government matches that amount. Last year, 35 veterans at CLU received Yellow Ribbon grants.
Beyond financial aid, offices across campus are finding creative ways to welcome and support veterans. For example, CLU’s California Institute of Finance launched an interactive website aimed at providing a place for veterans and active duty personnel to meet, exchange ideas and learn more about the School of Management.
Other potential initiatives include expanding counseling services for veterans, establishing a veterans club on campus and creating a veterans liaison position for the University to smooth the enrollment process and support veterans academically.
“We believe we can be a great place for veterans and local military personnel to continue their education,” said William Rosser, CLU’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
A veteran of Vietnam, Rosser was surprised by the size of the recent surge of fellow veterans attending CLU. He started to look for ways to expand counseling outreach and other support services to them.
“This is a group of people we want on our campus,” Rosser said, “and we want to make sure that we are providing all of the support necessary to help them be successful while they are here and in making this transition in their lives.”
‘Small, Mobile Force’
For many veterans, that transition can be bumpy.
Most are older than traditional college freshmen and many come with jobs, families and other responsibilities not typical of college students. In addition, many plunge into university life still struggling with the experiences of war, which may have left physical and emotional wounds.
But they also are a highly desired group, bringing an arsenal of problem-solving skills and a level of maturity that show through in class projects and interactions with professors.
Senior Andrew Gonzalez, a 41-year-old Moorpark resident, arrived at CLU with business as well as battlefield experience. After graduating from Agoura High School in 1989, he wandered through a few years of college and a series of dead-end sales jobs before deciding to join the Marine Corps Reserves in 1998. He was 28 and working as a personal trainer. And he saw boot camp and military service as the challenge he needed to jumpstart his life.
Six years later, he was called up to serve in central Iraq with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at the Al Asad Air Base.
A staff sergeant, Gonzalez said his deployment was not particularly harrowing. A dozen or so rockets were lobbed his way during his six-month stint, but for the most part, he spent his time in relative safety, directing air resources to support Marine and Army infantry troops throughout Iraq.
“We had it incredibly easy when you look at it,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t one of those guys knocking down doors.”
Upon his return to the states, Gonzalez decided to get serious about his schooling, first attending Moorpark College then choosing CLU as the place to pursue his interest in exercise science.
As a cycling coach who was about to open his own gym, Gonzalez was looking to expand his knowledge base by exploring the facets of human performance. After considering a handful of universities, he settled on CLU as the best fit, both because of its cutting-edge exercise science curriculum and its ability to navigate the intricacies of the GI Bill and extend aid and scholarships to finance the bulk of his education.
“Cal Lutheran is very much like the Marine Corps – it’s a small, mobile force, and ultimately I felt more at ease with that team than any other team,” said Gonzalez.
On target to graduate in December, Gonzalez is facing the prospect of another deployment in 2013, this time to Afghanistan. He believes it will be harder the second time around.
He is married now and the father of a 3-year-old son. He is also a business owner and will be, by the time he deploys, a freshly minted college graduate. But Gonzalez has known that this was part of the deal all along. He said he’s grateful to be part of the group of military personnel who have helped blaze a trail at CLU.
“What Cal Lutheran has done, and is learning to do, is figure out what it takes to support service members,” Gonzalez said. “It is undoubtedly the right thing to do. And, when you look at return on investment in the number of military personnel who are going to go on to get degrees and contribute to their communities, it’s undoubtedly a worthwhile thing to do.”
The School of Management has gone high-tech with its outreach to military personnel. Two years ago, CLU’s California Institute of Finance – which offers an MBA and a certificate program in financial planning – launched an online military lounge aimed at promoting its programs to service members.
The military lounge allows visitors to take a virtual tour of the campus and the online classroom, view graduate student work, and hear from military personnel about their CLU experiences.
“I thought this would be a unique way for us to show (military personnel) how much they are appreciated and how we were trying to make this a convenient experience for them,” said CIF Associate Director Harry Starn, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who devised the online concept.
“When you look at what a military student looks for in a program…they’re looking for things like accreditation of the school, quality of the courses they’re getting into, industry experience of the faculty and flexibility of program,” Starn added. “They’re looking at how a university will be able to meet their unique needs.”
Last May, Marine Corps veteran Rene Bruer earned his MBA in finance, along with a post-graduate certificate in financial planning, through the CIF’s online distance-learning program. The Florida resident and father of two did so by taking night classes while working full time as a financial planner.
Bruer said he chose CLU, over universities closer to home and other distance-learning programs, because of its flexible and highly rated academic programs, and its reputation for working with military veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Although this was distance learning, at no point did I feel this was a distant relationship. I felt taken care of, especially because I was a veteran. I couldn’t think of a better university to attend.”
Transforming Our Service
While CLU has attempted in many ways to reach out to and meet the needs of veterans and active duty personnel, there’s momentum across the campus to do even more.
Matthew Ward, CLU’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing, said the University has become much more knowledgeable in recent years about the challenges veterans face navigating the college process, from application to graduation.
It was his team that recognized the rise in CLU’s veterans population and prompted the University to join the Yellow Ribbon Program. And while he believes there is a solid network of support services in place to help veterans, he knows that more can be done to better coordinate and publicize those efforts.
“The overarching question for me, as we look toward the future, is how to come up with a more comprehensive, holistic approach that focuses on the multiplicity of issues and needs of this population,” Ward said.
CLU senior Jeanette Zimmerman has a few ideas.
The Navy veteran brings a unique experience to CLU, including deployment for months at a time on an amphibious assault ship in the Persian Gulf, protecting oil platforms from attack.
Before she graduates next December, she wants to create a veterans club on campus and work with the University to establish a veterans liaison office, a one-stop shop in which veterans can complete the enrollment process, file financial aid requests and learn more about VA and CLU programs available to support them.
“I have a wild dream, that’s still in the works, to unite the veterans here on campus so that we can work together, share stories and build camaraderie based on our similar experiences,” said Zimmerman, a Simi Valley resident and single mother of two.
Zimmerman has enrolled in courses at various universities in a long march toward earning her degree, having joined the Navy in 2003 with the intent of taking advantage of the new GI Bill. The communication major said that CLU “has some of the best classes and some of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
“But I also think that we, as veterans, have a lot to offer the University in terms of the different life experiences we bring to the classroom,” she added. “We are able to talk about experiences younger students might never consider. It can kind of open their eyes to what’s really going on in the world.”