Forward March

Helping veterans transition from combat to campus and civilian life.

By Laura Griffin

The calls and instant messages often come in late at night from Iraq, Afghanistan and other military bases around the world. The inquiries vary from applying to college to taking placement tests overseas to getting high school transcripts.

William Berdejo Montclair State’s Veteran and Military Resources Coordinator Denise Rodak and Admissions Counselor Betsy Montanez know that trying to figure out how to get into college while living in a war zone can be difficult, so they go out of their way to help.

They don’t have office hours so I don’t have office hours,” says Montanez, who tracks down transcripts, sets up testing locations and often talks to soldiers via satellite phone or Skype. “They’re already on a mission. The last thing I want them to worry about is getting a high school transcript, so I’ll call on their behalf. They are sacrificing so much for us; it’s the least I can do.”

Long before they arrive on campus, veterans and military students have spent a lot of time with Montanez and Rodak, who also serves as an adviser and instructor. “They are older and don’t have guidance counselors helping them out,” Rodak says, “so we often take on that role.”

Since the Post 9/11 GI Bill passed in 2009, more and more soldiers are going to college. The bill—which guarantees up to 100 percent of tuition depending on length of active service since Sept. 10, 2001—has helped 860,000 vets nationwide get an education.

In the past few years, the number of veterans and military students attending Montclair State has increased 200 percent, with 221 enrolled as undergraduates in fall 2012. When the war in Afghanistan winds down at the end of 2014, Rodak expects these numbers to increase. For the fourth year in a row, GI Jobs has ranked the University among the top schools in the country for vets and military students. “It’s a very welcoming campus,” says Rodak. “When our veterans have an occasion to wear their uniforms, out of the blue students stop and thank them for their services.”

Staying the course

Advisers and professors work with military students and veterans to make sure they stay on track throughout their time at the University. When 16 students were called to duty during and after Superstorm Sandy, most were able to make up the work when they got back, even after being gone for several weeks.

Silas Whittle Silas Whittle, a 34-year-old Iraq veteran and National Guardsman, was one of those students. An accounting major who has another year before he graduates, Whittle was called up for Sandy duty for almost three weeks, but kept in touch with his professors and did not fall behind.

“My professors from accounting and the business school were extremely reasonable,” says Whittle, the father of two children, ages 6 and 3, who spends downtime from school and the Guard at his daughter’s ballet lessons. “I’ve had such a great experience here. I feel lucky to have gotten in—especially with the veteran community here. That was what I needed; it helped with my transition to real life.”

Like Whittle, many veterans remain in the reserves or the National Guard upon return and have to juggle these responsibilities with school. Some students are redeployed after enrolling and have to put their education on hold.

Marc Last, a sociology major in the Navy reserves, was recently told he will ship out to Afghanistan in early 2014, which means his graduation will be pushed back a semester or two—but he doesn’t mind. “For me it’s kind of like a dream come true,” says the 23-year-old, who also works part time in the emergency room at Jersey City Medical Center. “I’m a little nervous, but this is what you train for and live for and it’s finally happening. And I will be able to finish school when I get back.”

Finding their way

Sometimes vets come straight from the service to school, barely stopping to put down their duffle bags; but often they spend some time trying to figure out what’s next.

Justin Jacobs “I was a little lost and feeling sorry for myself when I first got out,” says Justin Jacobs, a history major currently student-teaching at Hillside High School, who will graduate in May. “I had some anger to deal with in the beginning. Finally, I figured I better do something with my life.”

Enrolling at Montclair State made all the difference, he says. “When the new GI bill passed, it almost seemed too good to be true,” he says. “You can’t do anything without a degree.”

When Jennifer Campos, 26, was in high school, she focused on getting out of her South Bronx neighborhood and going to college. But her time at St. Thomas University in Florida ended when she became pregnant her first semester. She moved back home, married and tried to find work, but jobs for a teen mom without a degree didn’t pay much, and she had a $7,000 student loan to repay. Still, she says, she kept dreaming of someday going to college.

“In the Army, I could learn a skill and go to college when I got out,” she says. “My motivation was my daughter’s future. What would life be like if I didn’t get an education?”

Jennifer Campos So she enlisted and wound up in a combat unit in Iraq. “It was a lot tougher than I expected,” she says.

The transition home wasn’t easy, either. While she was gone, her grandmother died and her husband left her. Fortunately, the Army provided counseling services to help her cope with depression and some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It wasn’t until she enrolled at Montclair State and got involved with courses and extracurricular activities that she felt she was back on a path toward success. “It took some getting used to, and getting involved helped,” says Campos, who is still active in the National Guard. “I have to succeed. I have to be somebody for my daughter.”

Making the dream a reality

All first-year students at Montclair State take a new student seminar course, and there’s a section specifically designed to meet the transitional needs of veterans and military students. “They get to know each other, realize they’re not alone,” says Rodak.

Recently, the vets also got a room of their own in the Student Center and while it’s small, there’s a couch, a TV and a computer. “I come here to do homework and hang out with other veterans,” says Carolina Arango, who also spent time in Iraq and is in the Navy reserves. “We have the same concerns—we’re like a family. I was stressed coming back into civilian life, and the guidance we get here really helped.”

Carolina Arango The University’s Office of Veteran and Military Resources also facilitates special veterans programs throughout the year that help veterans work through their experiences with the use of art, music, and support groups. Rodak has brought in speakers and outside organizations such as Voices of Valor, a program that helps vets deal with their feelings through songwriting, and Combat Paper, an art program that helps them turn their old uniforms into paper and works of art.

Rodak’s work with the students earned her an academic advising award from the National Academic Advising Association, after being nominated by students. “Denise was tremendously helpful with my transition back to civilian life,” says Jacobs, one of the students who nominated Rodak for the national award. “Honestly, without her, I would not be as successful at school as I am today. She provides a warm and comforting atmosphere where veterans can truly feel welcome.”

It’s more than a job for Rodak. “It’s my pleasure to cut through the red tape for them,” she says. “They are highly motivated students who really see graduating from college as their next mission. They want to succeed. That makes my job easy.”

The future is now

Brian Shaw ’11 and David Gisonno ’10 are both Iraq combat veterans and were active members of the Student Veterans Association, which Gisonno founded as a “home base” for veterans when he was a student. Besides getting veterans involved in campus life, veterans organizations and community service, it is a place where they can feel free to be themselves with others who share similar experiences.David Gisonno

There was a need and the college jumped on board,” says Gisonno, who now works in advertising at Blue Fountain Media in New York City. “It’s not easy transitioning from combat to civilian life, and the organization brought us together as older students with similar experiences who were feeling our way through the education system. We were different from the other students. I felt being in school was my job. And my last job was being in combat. I took some of that same intensity into the classroom.”

Brian Shaw For Shaw, who joined the military right after high school in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks because he was too young to become a firefighter, war was an eyeopener. “When I first got there, and saw trucks being blown up, it was like, ‘Wow, this is really a war. We’re not in Kansas anymore,’” says Shaw, who deployed to Iraq twice in his five years of active duty.  ‌

When he got back, it took him a while to settle down and figure out that he needed to go to school, and then a bit more time to adjust once he got to campus.‌

“It was hard to relate to kids who are right out of high school,” says Shaw, now a Bloomfield, N.J., firefighter. “They were intimidated by me—this soldier with tattoos, sitting in the front row. Once the Veterans Association started, it made school a lot easier, knowing I wasn’t alone. But I took school very seriously. Now, I’m doing what I always wanted to do.”