BERKELEY – With a new GI bill set to double college benefits for post-9/11 veterans, the University of California, 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.
(Yasmin Anwar/UC Berkeley photo)
"You're going to see some pretty happy veterans walking around campus," said Michael Cooper, who processes veterans' benefits in UC Berkeley's 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."
University of California campuses are gearing up for an influx of returning troops seeking admission to its campuses. At UC Berkeley this year, 151 students have identified themselves as veterans and are majoring in everything from engineering and languages to philosophy and peace and conflict studies.
"The number of veterans at UC Berkeley increased this year, and we're likely to see that number grow," said 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,'' said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. 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 UC 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 UC Berkeley is really ahead in welcoming veterans. It's awesome," said Stuart Martin, 23, a veteran of the Marine Corps who is majoring in Near Eastern studies and rhetoric at UC Berkeley following a tour of duty in Iraq last year.
While the campus is well known for its Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, UC Berkeley has educated untold numbers of veterans. Its 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, and they cover less than half the cost of an undergraduate degree at a public research university such as UC Berkeley, said Kathleen Moazed, the campus's director of federal relations. Williams noted 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.
But 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 War 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 UC 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 said.
Of course, at UC Berkeley, just as on other college campuses, Iraq and Afghanistan conflict veterans face the stigma of serving in an unpopular war, and so part of Williams' job is to dispel on campus some of the myths about veterans, he said.
"Regrettably, some people operate on stereotypes about those who serve in the military 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 said. "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 affect 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 said, but also led him to question a lot of the military's tactics, particularly in recruiting and retention.
Martin joined the Marines when he was 17 because he said he wanted to see something of the "real world" and was not ready for college. "I felt I needed to grow up," said Martin, whose father and grandfather were in the military. 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. He never felt his life was in danger, but he said the job was stressful and that he was anxious to return to California.
While he enjoys studying Persian language and culture at UC Berkeley, money is tight, and he's counting the days for the new GI bill to go 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 reenlist.
"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 UC Berkeley, get a good education and not go into debt," he said. "Hopefully with this new GI bill, that won't be necessary."
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