Leading the Campaign to Help Returning Vets

Every war produces its own generation of veterans who return with distinct experiences, aspirations and struggles. For many of the Iraq-Afghanistan war generation, coming home means going back to school, and CUNY is emerging as a national leader in recruiting them into the classroom and developing programs to smooth their transition from military life.

Enrollment by veterans and reservists in CUNY colleges has been growing by about 10 percent a year, says Wilfred Cotto, University coordinator of veterans affairs, and stands at nearly 2,000 students.

 

Recent City College graduate Tesha Crawford plans on pharmacy school after completing military service.
Vets Abbas Malik and Xhevair Maskuli chat in the Armed Forces Club at College of Staten Island (CSI).
And many more will be coming: Increased education benefits under the new GI Bill took effect Aug. 1, and a key provision is a monthly expense stipend that is tied to the cost of living where the student veteran attends school. Under the new bill - the first change in education benefits since 1984 - veterans who enroll in a CUNY college will have their full tuition paid directly by the Department of Veterans Affairs and receive $2,700 a month for living expenses.

"According to the VA, there will be 10,000 veterans returning to New York City over the next few years, and they will be looking for education," says Cotto, a Brooklyn native who retired from the Navy in 2005 after a 28-year career. His appointment in 2007 to a post that had been vacant for 12 years was itself a sign that CUNY officials recognized that veterans were not only a growing student population but one that required special attention. Projecting that its 23 colleges and institutions will constitute one of the largest student veteran populations in the country, the University this year committed $1.25 million for a host of programs and initiatives and made them permanent in its budget.

Student veterans find that the University is a welcoming place.

"I think CUNY is the perfect university for veterans," says Don Gomez, a veteran of the Iraq war and a 2009 recipient of the Truman Scholarship. "There is an attitude that comes with being a student at a CUNY school that I don't think exists at many other colleges. It's similar to what I remember in the Army. Going to school in New York can be tough, there's a lot to contend with, but there are also rewards that come from the experience. Like the Army, the CUNY experience is what you make of it."

Each college has a veterans' resource office and several have full-time staff. Others have plans to add them. Among the more active and responsive campuses has been City College, primarily because of the advocacy of some of its student veterans. Gomez started a student veterans' association on campus and pushed for the veterans' affairs office. "It's had a huge impact," Gomez says of the office - most conspicuously in cutting through the red tape of the dual bureaucracies involved in getting education benefits. "The frustration can be overwhelming," Gomez says, "especially to someone who is just coming back from overseas and is used to flawless efficiency."

Maskuli studies in CSI's library.

City College has also given the campus veterans' association an office with a paid staffer of its own. "It's very isolating for a lot of veterans who come back to school," says Aubrey Arcangel, 27, a political science major who made several trips to Washington to lobby for the increased GI education benefits as director of the New York City chapter of Student Veterans of America. "When I came back, I missed that feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself. I missed the camaraderie of my unit. There's a large disconnect between a 24-year-old war veteran and a 19-year-old college student who gets his image of the military from movies like 'Rambo' or 'Black Hawk Down.' You always get the question no veteran likes to hear: 'Have you killed anyone?' So just to have a place to go and hang out with other veterans is very therapeutic."

At Hunter College, which has one of the University's larger student veteran populations, the School of Social Work has received national attention for developing initiatives to make support for veterans part of the fabric of the campus. Now in its second year, the Project for Return and Opportunity in Veterans Education places graduate social work students on CUNY campuses to assist and counsel veterans - and to build a self-perpetuating structure of veterans helping other veterans. "It's not just an asset but an asset multiplier," says Roger Sherwood, the Hunter social work professor who directs the program and is a Vietnam-era vet. The Hunter program is one of 20 nationwide to receive a $100,000 grant from the American Council on Education and the Wal Mart Foundation.

Many veterans say they joined the service out of high school because they weren't ready for college but came out of the service ready, willing and able to return to the classroom. Others needed some time.

After her discharge from the Army in 2004, August Coleman, now 28, got a job as an aide in a psychiatric hospital. Then came a turning point. "I got punched," she recalls. "It made me realize I needed to go back to school to be more than I was and not just stay there for 20 years."

Coleman is a nursing student at Hostos Community College - and a "veteran peer advocate" for CUNY's Office of Veterans Affairs. "I do outreach to veterans, see if they need any assistance," she says, "I went into a computer lab and saw someone who was on the VA website. So I went up and started talking to him - how long has he been back, how's he adjusting, does he need anything."

Recently, Coleman and others from the University veterans office spent a Saturday doing "outreach" - a day of reverse recruiting at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, the Army's only active post in the metropolitan area.

CUNY Veteran's Affairs Website >>