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College a tough adjustment for many military veterans

Aaron Maczynski talks with his girlfriend Desiree Escarcida.
Aaron Maczynski talks with his girlfriend Desiree Escarcida.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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A week after leaving the Marines, Desiree Escarcida launched her new life as a college student. It was a disaster.

“I got home and took my uniform off. The next morning it was done. That’s it. Everything was gone,” Escarcida said. “The depression started at that moment and no matter how hard I fought, it got worse and worse with every day that passed.” 

Escarcida is part of a growing wave of veterans attending college under the Post 9/11 GI Bill and many of them have struggled to return to civilian life. Some veterans say they feel isolated on campus, struggle with mental illness and feel like they can’t succeed.

Some student veterans like Escarcida, 23, struggled to pass classes. She was used to taking orders and being surrounded by fellow Marines – people who underwent the same training and held the same values.

Attending classes at Palomar College in San Marcos was different. She couldn’t relate to her classmates, many of whom were fresh out of high school, and some made negative comments about the military. She said even the school’s veteran center was uncaring.

“People were snobby. They weren’t helpful,” Escarcida said. “They just threw you at a computer and told you, ‘Do this.’”

Escarcida created a difficult schedule, and no one from Palomar’s veteran services warned her about the risks, she said. She ended up failing two classes and dropped out of another. She only passed one class that semester – a math class — with a D.

“I was so shaken up by what I was doing. It was so fast-paced, and being out of school for four years, I wasn’t ready,” Escarcida said.

Escarcida is one of an increasing number of veterans who have received financial assistance from the Post 9/11 GI bill, which went into effect about four years ago. The federal government has provided more than $23 billion in educational benefits on expenses such as school tuition, housing and books for veterans and their families under the bill.

Failing classes or dropping them, in some cases, can mean that veterans will have to pay tuition back to the government.

A fresh start 

Escarcida ended up paying the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs $150 for dropping her English class. When her boyfriend got out of the Marines, the couple decided to make a fresh start at Fullerton College. The community college in Orange County was more friendly toward veterans; she got help from other vets, and her grades improved. 

“Right off the bat, the veteran work studies were extremely knowledgeable, very helpful, very warm people,” Escarcida said. “It was almost like being back in the Marine Corps again. Just being around people I was familiar with.”

Student veterans are underdogs on college campuses, said Paul McKinley, director of Fullerton’s Veterans Resource Center. And some still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder – and professors and fellow students don’t always know their needs.

“A lot of veterans want to see every entrance to the classroom so they can see where the ‘enemy’ is coming in,” McKinley said. “Sounds like little things but those are huge obstacles for our veterans suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

At Fullerton College, the student veterans resource center has veterans tutor other vets. There is also training offered to staff on how to deal with student veterans.

But support for veterans on other campuses varies and the VA doesn't require schools to track veteran graduation rates. Even if there is help available for struggling veterans, some choose not to take it.

Fullerton College student Christopher Walker said one professor told him he might have dyslexia. After accommodations were made to help him learn, his grades improved.

“I had to learn how to ask for help. That was my big thing at school,” Walker said. “I had to learn how to open my mouth and say, 'I don’t understand this. Who can help me?'”

Veterans who need more time

Dan Caldwell, a political science professor at Pepperdine University, is organizing a faculty committee that will help student veterans. He’s a former Naval officer and said there have been instances where he has given student veterans with PTSD more time to work on their papers, similar to students in extenuating circumstances.

“Just as if someone had a broken leg, I would not ask that person to run a marathon. And some of our returning veterans have mental broken legs, and they need the help of fellow citizens to recover in order to run the marathon,” Caldwell said.

But Caldwell said a professor has no way of knowing if a student is a veteran or if they have PTSD, unless the student tells them. Caldwell said he gets to know his students – his largest class is 30 people. But that’s not likely to happen at larger universities where lecture halls fill with hundreds of students.

Not all veterans struggle with school. Some student vets told KPCC that their time in the military has helped them become better students because they are more disciplined in their studies. But for those veterans who are struggling with their transition to student life, having more support in school helps.

At a bowling alley near Fullerton College, Escarcida joins other student veterans to hang out.

Escarcida said it’s a time for the student veterans to kick back and have fun. She feels at ease here, knowing that even if she gets mad or starts cursing, her friends won’t think anything of it. They’ll tell her to “just chill out.”

“They’re all loud and rowdy and acting like idiots, but we’re used to it because the same way everyone is acting here is how we act [when we’re hanging out] in the Marine Corps,” Escarcida said. “It’s a comfort zone.”

Escarcida hopes to one day go into wildlife research. She has dreams of transferring to a four-year college. She says she can handle it, even if there is little veteran support.

“When I was at the other school, I really worried about that,” Escarcida said. “Now that I am here, I don’t worry about it so much.”

The Post-9/11 GI Bill at a glance

Who qualifies?

  • People who have served at least 90 days of military service after Sept. 10, 2001 and received an honorable discharge.
  • To receive full benefits, veterans need to have served 36 months of active duty service or been discharged for a disability connected to their service after 30 days of service
  • If veterans have served less than 36 months, they can receive 40 to 90 percent of benefits under the bill, depending on how long they served.
  • Veterans can also transfer their educational benefits to their spouse and children if they meet additional requirements.

Benefits include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Housing allowance
  • Books and supplies (up to $1,000 per year)
  • Rural benefit payment

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs