Steve Gonzalez, assistant director for the Legion's Economic Division, participated in the Veterans Education Symposium on Feb. 24. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Education symposium addresses academic disconnects

Communications, disconnects and cultural gaps are impediments to success for veterans on campus. Those sentiments were among the major theme that emerged from a Legion-sponsored Veterans Education Symposium on Feb. 24. The two-hour discussion among representatives of student veterans organizations, educational institutions, The American Legion and fellow advocates began with progress reports on the ongoing, state-by-state legislative struggle to persuade schools to grant in-state tuition rates to non-resident veterans and servicemembers.

Talk turned to sociological matters, however, as former student veteran Kim Mezger identified some of the stumbling blocks faced by veterans on campus. Mezger is vice commander of an innovative Legion post, University Veterans Post 360, which is based on Indiana University-Purdue University - a shared campus in downtown Indianapolis between Indiana’s two biggest state schools. Post 360 conducted its inaugural meeting on Jan. 15, 2012, making it the nation’s first university campus-based American Legion Post.

Mezger, accompanied by her husband Kevin, Post 360 commander, told of her own discouraging experiences as she returned to school as a military veteran, wife and mother, thus setting her apart significantly from fellow students as well as faculty and school administrators. She tied these memories to a spirited presentation of the cultural challenges faced by veterans as they enter campus life.

“When you’re in the military, pretty much all decisions are made for you,” Mezger said. “You are told what to do, where to be – you follow orders. At school, the atmosphere is completely different and there is very little guidance, so veterans sometimes don’t know what to do.”

Mezger then noted that many veterans, “especially those who went straight from high school into the service and have never been to college” are unschooled in the ways of formal education, which includes the adoption of study habits and note taking. “And, just imagine what it’s like for a young person who has never gone to college, who has joined the military and gone off to war – maybe two, three or four deployments – and then be on campus with a bunch of younger people who just want to party.”

Mezger and others in the discussion group also spoke of the ignorance and unwitting insensitivity of school administrators and faculty members in their interactions with student veterans whose life experiences are totally divergent.

All agreed that the presence of knowing advocates such as the Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter on campus was important, if not essential, to bridging the gaps between student veterans and their fellows at school. Veterans service organizations such as The American Legion can serve the student veteran community well, too, it was agreed, by helping to “educate the educators,” as one panelist put it, and offering student veterans “not bars and gambling – they don’t want those - but opportunities to continue serving.”

As Economic Commission chairman Dale Barnett, who hosted the symposium, suggested, “What about getting the veterans involved in our Boys and Girls State, oratorical contests and other youth programs?” His comment was answered by nods of agreement.

Near the meeting’s end, Michael Dakduk, SVA’s executive director, identified another communications gap. It is the one, in his estimation, between the media and the truth about the fate of student veterans. Despite the difficulties facing veterans as they seek to obtain their earned educational benefits, make sometimes dramatic financial adjustments, juggle family responsibilities with studies, and adjust socially to life on campus, GI Bill beneficiaries are, by and large, doing well, says Dakduk.

He pointed to data that defies at least some media reports that claim very high dropout rates among veterans, citing statistics obtained from at least two schools that indicate a graduation rate among veterans that is higher than that of the general student population. Dakduk also told of a recently commissioned nationwide data gathering project that will more accurately assess the success of veterans on campus and in the workforce post-graduation.

At meeting’s end Dakduk paid tribute to Legion Economic Division Assistant Director Steve Gonzalez with whom SVA has been working closely for the past year on and off Capitol Hill. The SVA executive director presented Gonzalez with a plaque noting the Legion staffer’s “service, dedication and advocacy efforts on behalf of Student Veterans.” Gonzalez, surprised by the honor, accepted the award with a smile.

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