It was 12 years ago last week since the tragic events of Sept. 11. Now, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, soldiers are returning home to begin new lives, and some are enrolling in school. What that means for Grand Valley State University is that there are more student veterans, military reserve students, and active Coast Guard and National Guard members on campus than ever before.
In 2009, there were 230 veterans and military-related students. This year, there are 504. While the number still appears to be low compared to the total population of GVSU, it is expected to increase dramatically over time.
In response to the increase, GVSU’s Student Veterans Organization unveiled the new Veterans Lounge on Sept. 11. Located on the upper level of the Kirkhof Center, the lounge offers veterans and military-related students a place to interact with others who have shared similar experiences.
“It creates a support group for each other,” Assistant Dean of Students Steven Lipnicki said. “Sure, while some veterans have some serious issues returning to classes, the biggest thing student veterans have challenges with is the assumptions of other students and teachers about themselves as a veteran.”
The increase of student veterans and military-related students can be directly linked to the Post 9/11 GI Bill. In 2009, the GI bill began to cover full tuition for many service members. It also provides for additional basic expenses and housing allowances.
According to the Grand Rapids Press, between August 2009 and January 2012, $6,310,482.70 was distributed to GVSU students through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, making it the fourth largest university in Michigan receiving funds for veterans. For some students, like Krystal Wilson, this means the difference between getting an education or not.
“I was really on that precipice of ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” Wilson said. “I wanted to finish school, but I had to pay for it myself. I’d have to find a way to do this.”
For Wilson, the National Guard was her answer. Monday through Friday, she works four jobs and attends classes. On weekends, she travels once a month up to Grayling, Mich., where she drills in preparation for deployment.
“I had a lot of anxiety issues. I couldn’t be in the room unless I was in a corner and could see everyone. I didn’t like people being behind me.”
While the National Guard was never in her original plan for life, Wilson has found a new sense of pride. She now serves as the first female president of GVSU’s Student Veterans Organization.
“I am so glad I enlisted,” she said. “There’s been so many of those moments. But there is a stark contrast from training environment and here. I had a lot of anxiety issues. I couldn’t be in the room unless I was in a corner and could see everyone. I didn’t like people being behind me.”
Many student veterans will experience post traumatic stress symptoms that impact their learning. The Student Veterans Organization offers free counseling to ease the transition to college life, and the new lounge is intended to bring those veterans together to help, as well.
Jared Bussey is in his second year at GVSU as a student veteran. Serving in the Marine Corps, he was sent in combat infantry to Japan, Korea, China, Guam, Afghanistan and more.
“It’s weird being around a lot of freshmen in my introductory classes,” Bussey said, explaining how he feels he sees life differently than those he sits next to in class, “I’m not saying they don’t have interesting views, it’s just not what I was surrounded by for so long.”
However, Bussey hopes the new lounge helps bring back some of the brotherhood he was accustomed to.
GVSU President Thomas Haas attended the opening of the Veterans Lounge, but will formally dedicate the space on Nov. 11 at the Veterans Breakfast.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Lipnicki said about the services GVSU gives veterans and military- related students. “As much as we do, there’s always more we can do. I just hope that the rest of the students get to know some of these veterans. In almost every class, they probably have one or two veterans in their class.”