Angela Hall spent more than six years in the Marine Corps before enrolling at Wright State University, and the change of scenery was unsettling.
“I wanted to be normal, but the first couple weeks I started to get overwhelmed because as much as you want to try to be normal, you’re not a traditional student,” said Hall, 27. “I’m fortunate that I have a really good support system.”
Wright State opened its Veteran & Military Center nearly two years ago, an upgrade designed to help veterans transition from military duty to the classroom and civilian life. The center helped WSU earn the No. 1 ranking this year by Military.com and CollegeRecon for “Best Veteran Programs.”
WSU is one of many Ohio campuses that have been cited for their work with veterans. Ohio State University has been ranked No. 1 two straight years by College Factual in the “Best Colleges for Veterans” category. In the recent U.S. News & World Report rankings, Ohio State, Miami University, the University of Dayton and the University of Cincinnati all were ranked among the top 90 colleges for veterans.
Sinclair Community College, which had 157 active military students use Tuition Assistance benefits last year, was named a 2016 Military Friendly School.
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Mike Carrell, director of Ohio State’s Office of Military and Veterans Services, said many veterans need help transitioning to college.
“They go from a culture of mission and team first and your needs are non-existent at times to it’s ‘all about you’ now,” he said. “That’s hard to turn that off, whether you serve four years or 30 years.”
That help comes with a price. Collectively, the nation’s colleges and universities took in nearly $5 billion in 2015 through the post-9/11 GI Bill, which pays for many or all expenses for veterans in college. Veterans benefit and the schools get a boost from a more worldly segment of the student body.
“They’re bringing life experiences from around the globe,” said Carrell. “They’ve led organizations of maybe five people to 100. They’ve had large budgets, they’ve worked logistics, moving stuff around the world.
“It’s a great experience level to bring into the classroom that the 18-year-olds and professors can benefit from.”
For Hall and other veterans interviewed for this story, it’s a two-way street. The junior sociology major, who owns a home in Fairborn, was asked if she would be on track to graduate without Wright State’s support system.
“If I didn’t work in the VMC (she’s in a work study program) and didn’t have the support, I doubt I would, honestly,” she said. “When I went to the center and talked to other student veterans, I found a place where I fit.”
Paying the bills
More than 12,000 veterans or military-connected family members attended Ohio colleges on the post-9/11 GI Bill in 2015. The tab was $95.8 million.
Ohio State had the most veterans using the benefits — 1,190 — according to U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs data from May 2015. Wright State and Sinclair were among the top six Ohio destinations for student veterans.
Most veterans use these benefits at public institutions, but private schools get some traffic. UD has more than 90 veterans in the program this fall.
Veterans services centers help the students navigate benefits and certify their status with the government. The GI Bill pays up to $21,970 annually for tuition and fees, and veterans are eligible for housing allowances and get help with books.
Schools participating in the Yellow Ribbon program provide more money to help close the tuition gap.
In addition to providing services, veteran centers give the nontraditional students a place to feel normal. When Aaron Pitts, a Marine and Miami East graduate, enrolled at Wright State in 2013, he said there “wasn’t much offered,” but the school’s VMC opened the next year.
“We have computer labs, a lounge, study areas. It gave us a spot to relax and feel comfortable in,” said Pitts.
Ohio State’s Carrell said the post-9/11 GI Bill is a success despite unclear graduation rates. A 2014 study conducted by the Student Veterans of America found that 52 percent of students in its sample of 1 million veterans had attained a degree. But the study acknowledged “inconsistent methods” of collecting information.
Carrell says the actual graduation rate for veterans is much higher. He said U.S. Department of Education tracks “first time, first school,” so transfers don’t count. He cited the journey of a recent OSU graduate, who was on her third school and took eight years to earn her degree, as an example of someone who wouldn’t be included in such data.
“She ran out of benefits at about the 4½-year point,” Carrell said. “She had three one-year deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in the middle of it. To me, that’s a tremendous success story that she persevered and got her degree.”
Carrell, who served in the Air Force, said the current generation of veterans is using the GI Bill at a 70 percent clip, as opposed to about 50 percent after World War II.
“If you think back to the GI Bill in World War II, it changed higher education and eventually changed the nature of America by getting folks degrees,” he said. “You’re starting to see that again with this group.”
Women are a big driver. Although they make up only about 12 to 15 percent of the military, about 27 percent of student veterans going to school on the GI Bill are women, according to Carrell.
Michigan native Ashley Morolo, a 26-year-old junior at UD majoring in dietetics, was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg. She looks like a college student, but is way beyond playing beer pong on Friday afternoons.
“I have a husband, a house and a son to take care of,” Morolo said. “A lot of people think the transition (from the military) is short. I’ve been out three years, but I’m still transitioning.”
Morolo sometimes brings her 2-year-old son Michael to campus, and her younger classmates ask questions about her military background.
“People are mostly shocked, then they’re interested,” she said. “I’m a small girl, I have blonde hair. My husband always jokes, ‘If I never met you in the Army I wouldn’t believe you were ever in it.’ ”
Morolo said the fact that UD has a veterans center played into her school choice: “We can connect throughout the day or get our families together. Having the veterans group makes me feel more connected.”
Morolo, a linguist who speaks three languages, said quitting school “is not an option.” She says her younger peers have been supportive.
“They often look to me for leadership in group projects; it’s very easy for me to step into leadership roles,” she said. “Sometimes I have to consciously step back to allow them to take the initiative once in awhile.”
Sometimes, student veterans can provide teaching moments. Travis Pheanis, 38, served for 20 years as an Army Ranger. The Franklin High graduate is married, has two sons and started at UD last month. He has a bachelor’s degree, but needs 30 credit hours to apply to physical therapy school.
He recently overheard two students talking about Operation Desert Storm, in which the United States drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Pheanis served in Iraq and provided some clarity about the people of Kuwait.
“Those two kids leave and this Arabic kid stands up,” Pheanis said. “He comes over and says, ‘Thank you, sir, I’m from Kuwait.’ He said, ‘You must’ve been in the Army.’ I said yeah.
“I spoke to him in Arabic, a couple catch-phrases that I know. He shook my hand and walked out.”