When the GI Bill isn’t enough

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network

For the past couple of months, as we’ve talked to student veterans about what it’s like to leave military service and enter school, one theme has come up again and again: The current GI Bill is pretty good.

Almost universally, student veterans we’ve heard from have told us how grateful they are for the generous benefits the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides: full tuition payments, a monthly housing allowance and an annual stipend for books and supplies. Many veterans have told us they would never have been able to enroll in school without it.

But there’s another, more complicated, story threaded through their experiences: The generous GI Bill benefits don’t guarantee academic success. What happens to students on campus and the support systems available at individual colleges and universities can make a world of difference for student veterans. And those systems vary tremendously between schools.

Lance Cpl. Desiree Escarcida has experienced the difference first hand. The Marine Corps veteran is a student at Fullerton College in California and secretary of the Veterans’ Resource Center there. Before she came to Fullerton, Escarcida enrolled in another California community college — just one week after she left the military.

“It was terrible,” she says now. “The school I was going to didn’t really have a program for veterans. I was just another number. I didn’t know how to use my GI Bill benefits and no one could explain it to me. The general population of the school didn’t know anything about the military. It was such a culture shock.”

Her school did have a veterans’ resource center, and she tried to take advantage of it, but she felt alienated pretty much right away. “When I walked in the first time, the veteran working there said, ‘Really? You’re a veteran?’ He didn’t believe that I had served – I think he was someone who maybe hadn’t served with women on a daily basis. He asked to see my ID. I was so turned off I just left,” she says.

Escarcida had struggled with depression for years, but the regimented life in the Marines had helped her keep it at bay. “We always had a mission, something to do,” she says. “Once I left, I finally had a break. It was refreshing, but I felt alone. I was suddenly on the outside with no one around, and [the depression] came back with a vengeance. I was forcing myself to go to class, but half the time I couldn’t do it.”

Escarcida finished out the semester, but she failed every class. She moved to Orange County and enrolled at Fullerton, and she says that the school changed her life. Fullerton has a veterans’ resource center where she feels comfortable; there are two counselors whose job it is to help student veterans access their GI Bill benefits and make sure they’re staying on track academically. She says she has friends who understand her and who she can rely on for support; every Thursday, she goes bowling with a group of student veterans. She’s earning solid grades now, and she’s planning to major in biology. “I don’t know where I would be without all the support here,” she says.

“Educational institutions need to be awakened to the magnitude of the issue of large numbers of veterans who have unique needs,” says Harold Martin, the Veterans Club adviser at Pasadena City College, another California school with an extensive support program for veterans. Among other programs, PCC runs a veterans’ center (“a real place that they can go to without an appointment and sit and hang out without feeling like the odd man out,” says Martin); hosts bbqs, paintball tournaments, and film screenings; offers classes to help veterans transition to civilian life; employs a case manager and tutors to help struggling student veterans; and trains professors and civilian students to understand what student veterans might be going through.

A message on the homepage of the PCC student veterans broadcasts, “We WILL NOT let you fail.”

“We need to invest in these [veterans] now,” Martin says. “Higher education can operate so slowly. … By the time you get this stuff in place, student veterans will have exhausted their benefits, gone bankrupt, flunked out. And you end up with, say, a great veterans’ center for people who don’t need it. I see hundreds of thousands of guys coming back now, and I worry that time is running out to help them.”

>> Share YOUR story: Tell us your experience with the GI Bill.

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.