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The post-9/11 GI Bill has opened the door for veterans like Josh Jones (seen here in his dorm room at Paul Smiths College) to go back to college. Photo: Mark Kurtz
The post-9/11 GI Bill has opened the door for veterans like Josh Jones (seen here in his dorm room at Paul Smiths College) to go back to college. Photo: Mark Kurtz

New GI bill helps vets pivot to civilian life

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This week in recognition of Veterans Day, North Country Public Radio has been looking at the struggles of young veterans returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many have come back to a sour economy, with few good jobs. For veterans under the age of 25, unemployment still hovers around 30 percent.

One of most ambitious efforts to help service members restart their lives has been the post-9/11 GI Bill, which offers financial aid for those soldiers who want to go back to college or a trade school.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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They're ready for the next step in their lives, so we definitely want more [veterans] on campus.
Virginia Senator Jim Webb, himself a former Marine, talked about the GI Bill this fall, saying "as of today, more than 800,000 Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans have been able to take advantage of this new GI bill."

The GI BIll, passed in 2008, has been important for veterans, but it's also transforming college campuses around the country.

Paul Smiths College near Saranac Lake has been recognized as one of the country's most veteran-friendly schools.

The number of service members at the school has grown from just five when the new program was launched in 2009, to nearly forty this year.

Amy Tuthill is director of veteran services at Paul Smiths College. Photo courtesy Paul Smiths College
Amy Tuthill is director of veteran services at Paul Smiths College. Photo courtesy Paul Smiths College
Brian Mann sat down with Amy Tuthill, director of the office veterans services at Paul Smiths, who says the goal is to attract more and more former soldiers to campus.

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It’s grown pretty steadily. My hope is that we get more, because they bring such an amazing leadership to our campus. There’s just something about these guys, and we have the one woman, so the guys and gals. I have professors who will come up to me and will say ‘do you have any vets for me this year?’ Because of their drive, they’re here for a purpose. They’re here; they know why they want to be here. They are ready for that next step in their lives. So we definitely want more on campus as the years go along.

Speaking to a couple of the guys who I’m interviewing, they talk about this being a process that they’ve decided to do, because they just weren’t finding work out there in this economy. They had come home, maybe taken a year to try to find a job. How common is that, as you’re recruiting, and as you’re talking to guys and women who might come here. How often do you find that it is a case where they’ve taken a stab at the job market, and that’s just not working with the skills they have?

I’ve heard that story; I’ve heard a number of them say that. I have one young man who was working in a kind of outdoor type of setting, working with a surveyor, and things like that. And he actually heard about Paul Smiths and found that he really needed that extra training. So he’s here for a surveying degree, and it’s going to take him two years.

He’s got some of the skill sets already from what he learned in the military and that part time job he had. But part time jobs just don’t fit the bill for a lot of people. They need something that’s a little bit more substantial. Hopefully to be able to have that degree and then go off and start his career. Hopefully between that and their training they’ll get that job they’re looking for on the other side, because the jobs, for many of them, aren’t plentiful right now.

Do you have any data yet on how successful they are after they come through here? Is there record of how much job placement there is?

I don’t have anything yet, because it is somewhat new for us. I can tell anecdotally for example, I have a woman who graduated from Paul Smiths last may. She had come to us out of the Army after 22 years, and decided to start a new career. So she got her degree in culinary arts. She’s now a sous chef. So she was able to jump right into that job. I think, coupling again that military experience and that ability to know how to get the job done; how to manage your time, how to work in groups, and then getting that education is what’s going to make the difference for them.

My sense is that one of the realities here for these young men and women is that the old traditional idea that people had of guys coming home from war, And there would be jobs waiting that sort of matched their skill level then, blue color jobs, factory jobs, that it’s just a new world now. I mean even if the military does give them some skills, some technical training, more is necessary.

I think that’s true, and I also think though that there’s so much out there and available now. Culinary Arts was probably not that big a degree way back when. And so if you came out of the military for example as a cook, then you could probably go into that industry. And now with the change in that industry, you see things on the food channel, and management, and all that stuff. So now a degree in Culinary Arts or Food Service and Beverage Management means a lot more too.

One of the things that I’m seeing and hearing from some of the people I’m interviewing is that a significant percentage of these soldiers who, especially as they’ve come in from the war, they’re struggling in an academic setting. Of the soldiers that you have, the service members that you have, is that something that you see? People coming in and saying this is a tough transition for me.

I do. And I try to give them that up front before they start classes as well. There are a number of differences between military life and college life. If you think about he structure of a service member's day, they pretty much know what they’re going to be doing from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. You come to college, and you might have a class at 8 o’clock in the morning Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and you may not have another one until noon. And so what do you do during that time of day? So time management is a different type of adjustment.

Then they have the experience of deployment, where they’ve been overseas, when they’re over there, they’re also taught to be very vigilant about everything that is going on around them. So when they come back here it’s very difficult to just let that go. They learn to be vigilant, they learn to keep their eyes open, and know what’s going on around them at all times. So now if they are in a classroom, some veterans will say they can’t sit for example on the interior of a classroom, they’ve got to be near the door. Where as before they’d gone of into military service that might not have been an issue, so those types of adjustments need to happen, and they try, but sometimes it’s very difficult.

 

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