WVU offers student veterans a chance to ease into college life

MORGANTOWN, W.Va., June 14 -- West Virginia University now offers veteran-only classes designed to help military members who have served overseas earn their degrees.

University officials say they plan to offer veteran-only courses in history, theater and public speaking. There will be a special veteran-only section of University 101, an orientation class meant to help new students ease into college life. The courses chosen fulfill general requirements for most majors.

“The purpose is to give those people returning from imminent danger a more relaxing atmosphere,” Veteran Advocate Terry Miller said. “They come from environments where when there (are) a lot of people and a lot of strangers, they’re in danger. So, they’re concerned with who’s around them, where the best exit is, and who they need to protect rather than what they should be learning.”

Amy Roberts-Dixon, a veteran academic adviser, said the university is reaching out to student veterans enrolled for the fall 2011 semester. The special courses are only offered during the fall semester. This year will mark the second year the courses have been offered. The courses are offered at no additional charge to the veterans.

West Virginia University currently has about 500 veterans enrolled, and an additional 150 dependents of veterans on campus, Miller said. Demand for the classes will likely be high, he said, but each class will have a cap of 30 students. If there's enough interest, he said, the program could expand in the future.

For students like Jake Lambuth, a 28-year-old student veteran, the classes could provide relief from the tension on campus.

“My wrists and forearms are tense by the end of the day from walking around campus,” he said. “I’m busy looking at people and sorting out who is showing aggression, and who is a target and who isn’t.”

Classes made up exclusively of student veterans are great tools for those who are transitioning back onto a college campus, he said.

“It’s hard to come to college and readily accept it and the people around you as safe,” Lambuth said. “Ultimately, the transition has the potential to be really awful. Classes like this allow you to be among students who are your peers, and it really softens the blow.”

Lambuth said he has friends who have tried to come back to a college campus in the past and without the acceptance, support or structure of the military lifestyle behind them, have returned to active duty saying, pledging to never return to civilian life again.

Already, veterans are prioritized by West Virginia University's admissions and advisery team. Once accepted into the university, an adviser from the West Virginia University Veterans Office contacts each veteran. Their application fees of $50 each are waived, along with their commitment fees of $250.

The veterans are invited to a special breakfast hosted by the university, where they're thanked for their service. If a student is deployed, university leave policies allow for an easy return to school. Veterans can also set up special financial aid and payment policies with the school.

This fall, the Veterans Office plans to host a veteran-only new student orientation.

Non-veteran students at the university tend to support veteran students, Miller said, but there's just no connection between average freshmen and veterans.

“At 26 or 27 years old, (veterans) have different priorities, and while the end goal of graduating with a degree is the same, the way they prioritize and what they want with it differs greatly,” Miller said.

Lambuth said it’s hard to explain to younger students why he is so much older.

“I tell (other students) that it’s not like I didn’t want to come back to college before now, I just couldn’t,” he said. “Most students don’t really care about an explanation anyway. They just see me as different.”

The average freshman student hasn’t been through the life experiences a veteran or active-duty military student has, said Rebecca Berger, a veteran rehabilitation counselor.

“If you have had two tours overseas and you’re sitting in class and hearing comments from your traditional student who might not understand, it can be hard, or frustrating,” she said. “With veteran-only classes, there are all like-minded people with similar experiences. It gives them the freedom to learn rather than feeling like they need to adapt to the classroom.”

Luckily, Lambuth knew what to expect, having completed a semester of college before being deployed. But for veterans who don't know what to expect when they return to a college campus, he said, the experience can be "gruesome."

“It’s still not easy," he said. "But knowing you have peers among you definitely makes it not as hard.”