Christine Featherstone arrived at Cal Poly Pomona two years ago to complete a goal she had put off for more than 30 years. After high school, Featherstone enlisted in the Navy, moving from Orlando to San Diego and Guantanamo Bay to Hawaii. Then, with family, work and everyday life responsibilities, she again postponed her undergraduate education until her youngest child left the house.
Featherstone’s story, while atypical, is not altogether unfamiliar. Cal Poly Pomona has nearly 300 veterans whose backgrounds and experiences vary widely. However, they do share two important ties: their military service and the university’s commitment to serve them.
As more troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, colleges and universities across the country are preparing for an influx of veterans who have different needs and expectations than traditional 18-year-old freshmen and community college transfer students. The growing number of veteran students is challenging universities to listen, be flexible and find ways to help them succeed.
“This is the minimum that all public universities should be doing for our men and women who have served the country so bravely,” says Doug Freer, vice president of student affairs. “It’s the right thing to do.”
A New Initiative for Veterans
Cal Poly Pomona established the Veterans Services Initiative in 2009 as part of a larger CSU effort to identify veterans’ needs, improve communication across campus, and streamline the admissions and registration processes. For the first time in years, admissions officers are reaching out to prospective students on military bases. Application deadlines are more flexible, allowing veterans to begin their college education as soon as possible. A specially designed website helps veterans navigate the university and answers frequently asked questions.
The university also launched a personalized online orientation program to help incoming veteran students learn about Cal Poly Pomona and transition to college life. The campus was one of four in California to receive a $100,000 grant from the American Council on Education and Wal-Mart Foundation to better meet the needs of veteran students and their families. Last fall, Cal Poly Pomona was named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs, the premier magazine for military personnel transitioning to civilian life.
While it’s unfair to generalize about veteran students, it’s safe to say that most are older and some have full-time jobs and families to support. Often, veterans are so focused on their education that they don’t have time to engage in the traditional college experience, according to Freer, who serves as co-chair of the initiative.
“The most common thing you hear about veterans is their focus and commitment to finishing their degree,” he says.
One small but enormously impactful change is giving veterans priority registration for classes.
“A lot of veterans have families and responsibilities at home,” says Mario Buenrostro, 34, who plans his classes around his 9-year-old son. “In my case, priority registration permits me to finish my classes on time and work around my family schedule. I’m thankful for that.”
Brian Stoops, who was on active duty for four years, feels as if he has to catch up on life, especially his education and career.
“We’re older. We just can’t mess around. I’m going to be very thankful if I have a job when I’m 30,” says Stoops, 28, a mechanical engineering junior. “I look at this as a job. I’m trying to obtain this knowledge, not pass a test.”
From soldiers to students
Transitioning from military life to college life isn’t easy, whether veterans have recently left active duty or have lived as civilians for many years.
“I had no idea what it was like to be a student,” says Stoops, who enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school. “There’s so much structure in the military. In school, you’re on your own in a sense. You have to take your own initiative, you have to study, and you have to set your own priorities and guidelines.”
For Featherstone, a 56-year old psychology major, going back to school meant she had to conquer new technology, cell phones and the Internet. Slowly, she also learned to relate to her classmates, who are about the same age as her children.
“I’m getting more comfortable in my skin here,” says Featherstone, who credits the psychology and sociology department’s peer mentor program for helping her make friends. “I really like the kids. I call them my kids. … My experience here has helped me understand my own kids and the young generation in general.”
Blending two cultures is also a relatively new challenge for Cal Poly Pomona, as the number of veterans has increased by 66 percent over the past three years. The Veterans Services Initiative had to take a hard look at improving communication and coordination among the many liaisons across the colleges and departments.
When Nicole Hearn transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2009, she spent months trying to find the appropriate office to process her benefits. The kinesiology major says she also experienced a lack of awareness from some faculty and staff about veterans’ issues.
“They had no idea what it means to have my classes paid for or to have an education plan,” says Hearn, 35, who served in the Navy. “Education programs must be completed in a specified time. A lot of times, you are required to take certain classes in a certain time or benefits run out.”
Before Featherstone could start classes at Cal Poly Pomona, the Registrar’s Office combed through her transcripts, which included training as a dental technician in the Navy, a certificate in computer systems analysis and a couple of community college classes in Orange County.
“I felt very lost but I felt like they were helping me,” she says. “They told me what to do, where to go. I felt extremely welcome.”
One of the goals of the Veterans Services Initiative this year is to help faculty and staff better understand and teach veterans. Staff members in the Registrar’s Office are constantly reviewing the myriad details and changes related to government benefits, and they also serve as sounding boards when students need someone to talk to.
Provost Marten denBoer, co-chair of the initiative, says veterans are valuable members of the community who often bring their leadership, discipline and teamwork skills to the classroom. Though not all readily disclose their military background, he hopes they can be an example to other students and share their experiences.
“They often have an international perspective and a sense of the world as a small, integrated place,” denBoer says. “Our hope is that they do share, especially in the classroom. … They’re really excellent students. They’re so highly motivated. They realize what the stakes are.”
Jeramiah Solven, a kinesiology major, says he tends to be quiet in class and rarely brings up his military background because he does not want others to view him differently. Still, he finds himself taking on leadership roles, probably because of his experience as an Army sergeant who was deployed Iraq for 15 months.
“In groups, I will be the one coordinating the breakdown of who’s going to be doing what. That tends to be the trend. I think that comes from the military and ROTC,” the 25-year-old says. “I wasn’t like that before. I was more laid back, go with the flow.”
Buenrostro, a technology and operations management major, says his eight years in the military, including three tours in Iraq, trained him to be more disciplined and detail oriented. Working with supervisors and managers with different backgrounds and skills in both the Navy and civilian world, he realized that a college degree would give him a competitive advantage. Those experiences, along with being a single father, shape his view of higher education.
“I don’t take lightly any of my classes or any of my homework,” Buenrostro says. “For one, tuition is high. Also, you have these professors who give you this profound knowledge and who teach you to be a better person, not just academically but in society. … When I’m in class, yes, I’ll sit in the front, I’ll raise my hand, and I’ll ask a lot of questions.”
Buenrostro, who has a reputation for being a hard worker, often serves as team leader on group projects. He sets up a timeline for the quarter and makes sure he and his teammates finish their assignments early, not just on time.
“In the Navy, if you’re on time, you’re already late. If you get to an appointment when it’s supposed to start, you’re already late,” he says. “That’s why I push them. It won’t seem so overwhelming, and it gets the job done fast and efficiently. That’s how it is in the real world. It’s all about group projects and working with people.”
The contributions of veteran students are not limited to classroom discussion and group projects. The Veterans Services Initiative hosts a welcome reception at the start of the academic year and a graduation celebration in June, as well as recognition events for Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The events highlight their military service and remind the campus community of the presence of this small, yet esteemed group of students.
“They are heroes for the nation because they have put their lives at risk for us, and they keep serving,” denBoer says. “We need to respect, honor and value what they’ve done.”