The University of Arizona is starting to prepare for what is expected to be a significant spike in enrollment of military veterans, especially those returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The best estimate by UA officials is that more than 400 veterans are already on campus, with many more heading here in the coming decade.
Lynette Cook-Francis, the UA assistant vice provost for Student Affairs, said the UA is developing a comprehensive initiative designed to recruit veterans as students and to help them succeed and graduate, a goal that has been difficult here and nationally.
"We have a great incubator for ideas here, Cook-Francis said. "We haven't even begun to see the numbers of student veterans who will be coming here. With the new GI Bill, we are just starting to see some of the students from the very first wave in Iraq. And we are just now beginning to see them. But, I can tell you that in another five to 10 years we're going to see an onslaught of veterans enrolling at the UA."
Much of the UA's history involves veterans affairs. As early as the 1920s, then-President Rufus von KleinSmid bore the brunt of returning World War I veterans who complained of campus regulations that treated them like children.
When UA enrollment exploded after WWII, dozens of surplus Quonset huts were erected on the old polo grounds for family housing. The last remnants of Polo Village were torn down in the 1980s to accommodate the expanding medical campus north of Speedway.
The original Student Union and its successor both were built to honor UA veterans who died in combat.
Now, a recently passed expansion of the GI Bill means that colleges and universities around the country will see a new wave of these students. The challenge these schools all face is meshing an ethnically and academically diverse population, many who have never experienced higher education, into the collegiate milieu.
Cook-Francis said the UA staff at the registrar's office has been trained to handle veterans benefit issues, including the GI Bill.
The University Teaching Center is developing a transition curriculum for veterans and is training faculty on how to teach them.
The Disability Resource Center has facilities for training returning veterans with disabilities, including athletic programs. And a veterans center in Old Main is expanding to handle its role as the intake facility.
Terri Riffe, the director of the University Teaching Center, or UTC, said her unit is developing classes to help veterans assimilate into the campus community, and teaching faculty about their unique needs. UTC has begun to offer veterans classes on resilience and stress management. The classes are designed to improve memory, strengthen problem-solving skills and build a social support network.
Riffe said since many students start out at community colleges. UTC has been working with Pima Community College and Cochise College as well.
"This is the entree. We want to provide them with the resources they need for academic success here," Riffe said. Students would move on from these to general education classes and degree programs.
"In many cases, their confidence levels are not high coming back. Many of these people went into the military thinking that they wouldn't be successful in higher education. This helps them get back on track," she said.
Riffe said that UTC's perspective focuses on learner-centered education. "Our programmatic mission was to learn about this group and to teach faculty how to successfully work with a cohort not a lot of people have not had a lot of success with."
She said John Schupp, a chemistry professor at Cleveland State University, developed the model for recruiting and retaining veterans in college. The UA is building on Schupp's program at Cleveland State.
Schupp, who has visited the UA and collaborated with Riffe and her staff, said the key is keeping veterans together as a cohort, offering classes to help them transition into college life and keeping them in close contact, much like they were during their active duty.
In the two years he's been studying veterans at Cleveland State, Schupp said that once they're acculturated to the campus their numbers reflect those of other, more traditional students.
The idea, he said, came to him after talking to Vietnam and Persian Gulf veterans and asking them what their problems were in college and why the dropout rate for returning military was so high.
What he found was that veterans felt like they didn't fit in with other, usually younger students who also didn't understand what life was like in the military. He said in 1946, when nearly half of all college students were returning WWII GIs, assimilation into college was easier because there were plenty of other classmates, mostly men, with shared experiences.
Schupp also discovered that large amounts of money allocated for veterans benefits were going unspent. Less than eight percent of veterans used all of their GI Bill benefits, and only 40 percent tapped into them at all.
Schupp reported his data to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio who helped pass an expanded GI Bill that was signed in July 2008.
The more generous benefits, as much as $80,000 over the course of a college education, will likely translate into more veterans entering college.
Amanda Kraus at the UA Disability Resource Center said the center has just received a federal Participatory Action Research Project grant to study veterans reintegration and transition from the military into college.
"We're in the very early stages, literally in the first month, and laying the groundwork for the project," Kraus said. The goal is to have the veterans themselves drive the research, identifying issues and problems of access, equity, funding and other issues, and use that data to develop strategies to empower veterans.
Kraus said the UA also just opened the Veterans Education and Transition office in Old Main during the first week of school. The center is currently open 20 hours a week and staffed by students who themselves are veterans. Over time, she said, the center will adjust its mission to better accommodate veterans with the services it offers.
The UA will host a celebration for veterans and new veterans programs and their sponsors on Thursday, Oct. 9, from 4-6 p.m. in the Student Union Memorial Center.