Shawn George, a 41-year-old junior at Marist College, is the president and official founder of the Marist Student Veterans Organization. Since its recognition as a chapter of the Student Veterans of America in 2011, the organization has been dedicated to assisting the growing population of student veterans at Marist College. George will transition to the role of Veterans Contracting Officer as the plans for the official Veterans Department of Marist College become finalized later this year.
The role of the current Marist Student Veterans Organization is to help veteran students understand and use their military benefits to pay for their education. “We’ve made some huge strides in the last two years,” George said, “When I first started going to Marist, there was no orientation for adult veteran students.” George remembers having no idea how to find any of the buildings where his classes were located. “It was because of a glitch in the system,” he explained. “We’re considered adult students, no matter that were are on a traditional path. Everything we do goes through adult enrollment, not undergraduate admissions. No one had us on their radar. We have a nickname for ourselves, we’re the ‘non-traditional traditional-undergrads.’”
George’s new position as Veterans Contracting Officer means he will have the role of helping veteran students navigate the large amount of paperwork that they are required to file in order to gain their benefits and pay for school. “We have a lot of red tape, and there was nobody to help track it because of the way the system was set up,” George said. “It’s not that Marist didn’t care–we were just kind of an odd-ball to the system. We now have a special orientation for veteran students, so that they understand their benefits and what the government is expecting of them. They have GPA requirements and attendance requirements–it’s like being on a weird scholarship, but that scholarship is administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs.”
Marist is an official Yellow Ribbon School. This means that there is an arrangement between the school and the Veterans Association which states that after $18,500 is spent by the student towards their education, the college and the Department of Veterans Affairs split the difference. Most student veterans attending college today do so via the benefits of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides funding for education and housing to individuals “with at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill provides support for tuition and fees, a housing allowance, and money for books and supplies. Officially, funding provided by the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is capped at the highest in-state tuition, which for the state of New York is Cornell University, where tuition is about $18,500 per year. However, George said that because many veteran students are over the age of 22, they are not allowed to live on campus at Marist College and are required to find off campus housing for themselves. For undergraduate students at Marist who are not living on campus the cost rises to roughly $38,000 per year, this leaves veteran students with a bill of about $19,500 to be split by the college and the Department of Veterans Affairs once the required paperwork is filed.
“[Veteran students] have a different experience,” says George, “They don’t go home to stay with their parents over the summer–they have families, usually a spouse and children. Veteran students are just now starting to see their housing money coming in due to paperwork filing, it generally takes two months each semester before their funding kicks in so they have to be very conscious about budgeting.”
“It’s different,” admits Jorge Medina, a 29-year-old student veteran who returned to school in May 2011 after his service in Iraq, and who plans to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice. “Coming back and using the G.I. benefits, going back to class with people who are much younger, and remembering what it was like being in their shoes first going to school. Theres a few people that I know on campus who are veterans that are around my age, so thats nice to see. They’re using their benefits, as well as people I know who are younger than me who are using their benefits and going to school,” Medina says.
Tunicia Ward, administrative coordinator in the office of graduate admission, explains that until recently the veterans enrollment process operated through the current office of graduate admissions, located in the Rotunda, but that this year the goal is for that office to become “its own separate entity.” When this occurs, Marist College will join the growing number of college campuses across America that have an on campus office specifically for the veteran student population.
Scott Khare, the assistant director of financial aid at Marist College, emphasizes that Marist’s ultimate goal is to create only two channels of students: graduate and undergraduate. “We really don’t wish to separate [these groups] by any reasonings,” Khare says, “to us you are either an undergraduate student in the undergraduate program, or you are a graduate student. As far as the admissions process, we did have a graduate and adult education office, but no longer. As we started this year, we have only a graduate and undergraduate office.”
“There are certain universities and colleges in America–the University of Texas is a fantastic example–that have an incredibly large population [of student veterans]…and they have had, for many years, an actual Veteran Affairs office on campus, they are literally connected [to the VA program] in that regard based on the population they have and the years they have been involved,” says Khare, “And there are some institutions that are simply now, this year, having students on their campus who have this benefit. Where we are evolving to, hopefully, is where we will actually have what I think Shawn [George] has helped create a model of, which is a ‘one-stop-shop’ office.”
Khare further explains the importance of an on campus institution for student veterans. “Ideally what you would hope to have,” he says, “is not just a person who is assisting with the billing, and the paperwork, and the financial support and the connection with the V.A.–you would hope too that you would have a counseling piece and also a cultural piece, which is where this organization has really become an avenue for students to connect to the campus in other ways, not just through the administrative offices and the process.”
George explained that a possible reason for the lack of knowledge about how to deal with the growing numbers of student veterans is because there are more young veterans today than the country has seen since World War II. “Marist is actually leading the way as far as these programs on campus,” George says, “Right now there are right around 100 students enrolled on campus [at Marist], it’s hard to nail down the total number though because many students study online. Still, that [on campus] number shows a 250% population increase [for student veterans at Marist] in the last 2 years.”
At the same time, the national unemployment figures for veterans have improved significantly in the past year, with the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans falling from 12.3% in May 2012 to 7.3% in May 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. George mused that perhaps this shift to a greater focus on veteran students has had an impact and says he realized that the potential for a successful start was there from the beginning. “From Dr. Murray all the way down, Marist has been extremely supportive of the veteran population,” George said, “We try to blend in but things are different for us. I’ve seen the commitment from Marist but they needed someone to step up to show them how to succeed [with this program] and thats what we’ve been doing.”