University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Yellow Ribbon

Vets Ryan Britch, Corey Tefft, and Robin Fitch-McCullough

Building on the Post-9/11 GI Bill,
UVM has become a top school for veterans

David Carlson ’11, UVM’s coordinator of student veterans services, knows something about dramatic transitions. In 2004, he went from earning his diploma at Burlington High School to enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, then from boot camp to Camp Fallujah, Iraq, in a matter of several months. A second deployment, in Ramadi, and a third, as a reserve on a ship in the Mediterranean, would follow. 

When Carlson completed his military duty, returned home, and decided to continue his education, he knew he’d be coming to the classroom with very different life experience than most of his fellow undergrads at UVM. At age twenty-four, with a youthful face, Carlson really wouldn’t stand out much. Still, he says he did what he could to blend in even more. “I grew a beard and wore a Mountain Hardware jacket,” he notes. 

As coordinator of student veteran services, a new job for Carlson and a new role at UVM with the outset of the past academic year, he takes a central role in helping his fellow military vets make a smooth transition into the university and negotiate the new environment once they’re enrolled.  “For the veterans who have done two or three enlistments and then come back to begin college when they’re age thirty or thirty-five, that’s another challenge,” he says. “They’ve got a family at home and here they are in Calc I with thirty freshmen. That is going to be more difficult.”

Chris Lucier, the university’s former vice president for enrollment management, notes that the initiative to better serve military veterans’ higher education needs came from several places—the President’s Commission, Student Government Association, the Veteran’s Assistance Committee, and leaders in state government. “Given the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the number of veterans leaving service, we felt it not only was a moral imperative to support the men and women who had fought for our country and ensure their success, but also a component of creating a diverse community,” says Lucier, who left UVM in June for a vice president’s post at the University of Delaware. 

Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne G’04, director of Geographic Information Systems in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a veteran from the earliest days of the Iraq War, was among those on campus championing veterans’ issues. Focused on intelligence work and based in Kuwait as a U.S. Marine Corps officer, O’Neil-Dunne downplays the challenge of his deployment compared to those who would follow. A captain in his late twenties, he remembers being struck by the youth of the fighting force. “You look around and it’s as if you grabbed UVM and sent us off to war—but without most of the faculty and staff. Very, very young people.”

Years later with his military experience behind him, O’Neil-Dunne crossed paths with Ryan Little ’13 in the UVM Fitness Center one day and struck up a conversation based on the student veteran’s Marine Corps T-shirt. That connection would eventually lead to O’Neil-Dunne taking on the role of advisor to the student veterans group. In the short term, he added his voice to those advocating for stronger veterans support and found many allies. 

Like Lucier, he notes the diversity that veterans bring to the institution. “But the purpose of diversity isn’t for that minority,” he says. “It is not just to help them out. It’s for the majority. The vast majority of students we have on campus are drawn from New England, generally upper middle class, likely without a parent in the military. I tell student veterans that they may be the only chance some students have to interact with someone who has served in the military and been deployed in America’s longest wars. Do what you can to share your experiences with them and educate them.”

That, in itself, is a balance. The all-too-real challenges many veterans face with issues such as PTSD also create stereotypes. Student vets mention the occasional sense they’ll get that someone is wondering if they’re a “ticking time bomb.” While fellow veterans Ryan Britch and Corey Tefft both wear black metal memorial bracelets honoring a fallen comrade, they otherwise look like any other pair of UVM undergrad guys in baseball caps, and generally like it that way. Tefft says, “I don’t mind talking about it sometimes. But it’s easier if not everybody is asking me a million questions.” 

  

David CarlsonDavid Carlson '11

UVM's efforts have earned the university a spot in the top ten in a U.S. News rankings list of veteran-friendly schools. Carlson notes that recognition is partly due to participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an initiative through which the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition has been covered, in a 50/50 split, by a student’s school and the Veterans Administration. “That’s UVM saying, in no uncertain terms, in dollars and cents, that we are trying to support veterans,” Carlson says. (For in-state students, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides full in-state tuition and fees, plus a housing allowance.)

“Dave has a lot on his plate,” says UVM history major J.T. Batchelder ’14, a military veteran who came to the university after two years at Community College of Vermont. While Batchelder is frank that trying to make the worlds of veterans benefits and university financial offices mesh has been sometimes frustrating, he says having someone on board as veterans services coordinator is helping matters. “He’s someone I can talk to rather than bouncing from office to office all over campus. Dave has made my life much easier.”

Batchelder enlisted with the U.S. Marines between his junior and senior years at Burlington High School and was off to basic training just days after his graduation in 2006. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a key motivator for him. “I felt like this was my time to do something,” he says. “I’d gotten so much already from the country and I was going to give something back.” 

Batchelder says college barely crossed his mind in high school. He figured he would join his father in the building trades after his military service, but the Post-9/11 GI Bill suddenly opened the door to higher education for him. Batchelder and fellow student veterans note the decidedly different life experience they bring to college than most undergrads. 

Collier Harmon, who is simultaneously a medic in the Army Reserve and a UVM nursing student, says, “The possibility to be called up to deploy is constant and not something many students can relate to.” She is also frank about some frustrations with the system, particularly the difficulty in transferring military credits to UVM as academic credits, but says she feels the situation is getting better. “Overall, there are many areas in which UVM can be improved for student veterans, but the hardworking individuals set on making these changes have been met with a largely receptive administration, and together we are making strides to serve those who have served,” she says.  

For Ryan Britch, a senior in sociology from Franklin, Vermont, the college funding of the GI Bill was a motivator to enlist, a path to an education he otherwise could not afford. Britch says when he enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard at age seventeen he was also driven by a certain sense of adventure and the desire to serve. “I feel very fortunate to be an American,” he says, “and I wanted to give back in some fashion.”

Britch says his transition into college life after the military was initially challenging. He found a defining moment in difficulty when a professor made a disparaging comment about the U.S. military, expressing the opinion that soldiers are solely individuals on the fringe of society, the unemployed and uneducated duped into putting their lives on the line for oil interests. Britch approached the professor after class, spoke of his own experience, and asked her to recant the statement. She declined. 

Though Britch and fellow veterans say that one experience contrasts with typically supportive and respectful treatment they receive from faculty and students, he took it as an additional level of motivation to prove himself through his academic work. 

O’Neil-Dunne praises UVM’s undergrad student body for their ability to separate the political from the personal, noting the contrast with the Vietnam era. “I would bet that the majority of our students are not in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they are able to set aside policy differences and make that separation.” He notes the support for a Veterans Day event on campus, students stopping to offer their thanks and help as he collected the small American flags set out on the Bailey/Howe green in memory of fallen soldiers. “I love the young people we have right now because I think they are a much smarter generation,” he says. 

For the student veterans, entering a welcoming community where reflection is part of the educational experience can be an ideal next step from the military as they move forward with their lives, O’Neil-Dunne says. And he adds that being a little older and with a deep, intense well of life experience from the military, the student vets are ripe for learning. 

That’s something Ryan Britch has experienced firsthand during his time at UVM. “I definitely feel more motivated, more organized, more focused than I was when I was eighteen. That could be age; it could be maturity; but I also believe it is because of things I learned while I was in the Army.” And, with a wisdom and perspective born of that experience, he adds, “Three years ago I was in a foxhole on the Afghan/Pakistan border, freezing cold. Now I’m in a university classroom sitting next to my peers. I feel very fortunate to be here. I’m ecstatic to be here.” 

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