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Military veterans aren’t traditional students, but local colleges aim to ease the transition: ‘It is a culture shock when you get out’

A lecture in progress in Leslie Soc-Sci building in theatre 2A at UCT (Discott/Wikimedia Commons)

When DePaul University student Mike Baumann talks with his classmates, hearing what stresses them out, he thinks to himself, “Wait until you’re older.”

Because of his age, Baumann, 32, feels out of place around other students in his undergraduate business classes. But there’s another reason his perspective differs — he’s a veteran.

Baumann served in the Army for six years, a year of it in Iraq, working as a combat medic. The Florida native enlisted at age 17 after finishing high school. When he completed his service, Baumann worked in a series of jobs and completed some schooling in other states before deciding to move to Chicago.

He settled on DePaul, enrolling last January, and expects to graduate with his bachelor’s degree next spring. He hopes to land a job in human resources.

Baumann, who is also married and lives in the Albany Park neighborhood, balances a part-time job at the university’s veterans services office, as well as a job as a Lyft driver, in addition to his classes.

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“I’m definitely not living the life they are,” he said of more typical undergraduate students.

Plus, while Baumann cares about doing well in classes, he said he knows there’s more to life than getting good grades. He’s laser-focused on completing the classes he needs to earn his degree and start his new career.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 780,000 veterans used their GI Bill benefit to attend school in fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. More than 21,000 of them were at Illinois schools.

Recognizing the unique challenges and perspective of students who are veterans, many colleges try to reach out to that group, offering assistance with paperwork, information about various benefits and social opportunities.

At DePaul, about 600 veterans are enrolled as students — the most among Chicago-area colleges, said Megan Burda-Giedraitis, DePaul’s assistant director of adult, veteran and commuter student affairs.

The university puts a number of resources in place to assist veteran students, she said, including regular visits from a representative from the Brown VA Medical Center to advise on health benefits. The school also started a program last year that pairs interested students with other veterans at DePaul to help with academic goals, financial planning and other advice.

Because veteran students are older than traditional ones, often live off-campus and sometimes even have families to support or work full-time jobs, Burda-Giedraitis said the school recognizes they might not have much time to socialize or connect with students they meet in class.

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Each quarter, DePaul’s veterans services office plans social events so veterans “start to know other military-connected students” and “build an affinity that traditional students are getting.”

Baumann said he’s found solidarity in his school’s chapter of the Student Veterans Association, helping to organize movie nights and other gatherings.

“It gave me people to talk to” when he first arrived at the university, he said.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jesus Molina, associate director of student veteran affairs, said his office serves as “a gateway of anything a (veteran) student might need.”

Molina, also a veteran, said going from active military duty to college life can be a tough transition.

“In the military, you’re dressed a certain way, told to be here or there. It’s very black and white,” he said. “Here, they have to figure that out on their own.”

That’s why there’s help available from the university to answer questions and make sure all paperwork is submitted, along with job fairs and resume workshops, Molina said.

“One thing we try to stress is to try to build your toolbox in a way to make sure you (are prepared for graduation),” he said.

But “sometimes students just want to be looked as a student and not a veteran,” Molina said. “We let them know they can be both.”

The university also opened the Cisar Student Veterans Center about five years ago as a place for veterans to study, relax, be with other student veterans and receive assistance.

UIC student Amy Huerta, 23, of Little Village, spends a lot of time at the center.

“It’s a big school. I can find quiet there,” she said.

Huerta wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she graduated from Elgin High School, so she decided to enlist in the Navy. She had always admired classmates who participated in military boot camp activities, and her older sister was in the Air Force.

The benefits, including tuition dollars after completing her time in the service, appealed to Huerta, as well as the opportunity to travel the world. After working as an aviation structural mechanic for four years, including trips overseas to Bahrain, Huerta returned home and enrolled at UIC last January. She plans to become a dentist.

Serving in the military made Huerta a better student, she said. There’s no “crazy partying” or skipping class.

“Going to the military helped me grow and gave me confidence,” she said. “I feel like I’ve benefited from it so much. I know myself better, know what I want to do, what I want out of life.”

Still the transition wasn’t easy, she said. “It is a culture shock when you get out.”

Meeting other veterans who understand helps, Huerta said, as well as the structure of school. The assistance and advice she’s received from university employees is also valuable, she said.

Tasia McKinney, 34, of River North, recently graduated from DePaul and soon will move to Arizona for a cybersecurity job. She chose DePaul because the university made her transition from active military duty to college student easy.

While serving in the Navy on ships in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, McKinney filled out college applications. She said the staff at DePaul was the most helpful — so helpful that when she arrived on campus days after returning from the Middle East, all she had to do was get her student ID.

“There were challenges along the way,” said McKinney, like “getting back into … the flow of writing papers again” and “learning how to relax and get into civilian life.”

“I was an engineer in the Navy, so I was working 16-, 17-, 18-hour days out to sea,” she said. “That’s not a lot of sleep, and it’s always go, go, go. It’s hard to turn that off when you get home.”

McKinney said she’d hear from other veteran students she’d meet at school that the feeling was normal, and she now tells that to other veteran students she meets.

“I still go over to the (DePaul veterans) lounge to hang out. I pop in and say hi,” she said. “The best thing I could say is that transitioning to being a student from active duty is just that, a transition. It’s OK to feel uneasy about it.”

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© 2019 the Chicago Tribune