Bowling Green, Ky. — David Angle calls himself a late bloomer. He was 33 when he joined the military, and when he returned from duty, the Bowling Green veteran didn’t know what to do.
That’s when he discovered Veterans Upward Bound, an educational program that helps veterans learn the skills needed to go on to college. At first, Angle got “cold feet” and left the program. But he soon returned and found himself enrolled at Western Kentucky University at the age of 49.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb,’ ” Angle said. “My first couple of weeks on campus, I was so nervous in my classes that my hands shook.”
But Angle graduated and is now a teacher for WKU’s Veterans Upward Bound – the same program that gave Angle the skills and confidence to get into college.
As veterans readjust to life after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are taking advantage of educational benefits. In addition to college money, many organizations, such as Veterans Upward Bound, give veterans free educational assistance. Last year, WKU was ranked the 16th best college in the nation for veterans by the Military Times, with a veteran graduation rate of 44 percent.
The local program assists more than 120 veterans a year, helping them get into college and vocational school. They teach veterans basic skills from math to computers, help them apply for financial assistance and give them career counseling and scholarships.
But most important, the program provides a confidence boost for many veterans, said Rick Wright, a counselor and coordinator.
“Many of them have never been to college before. A lot of them dropped out of high school,” he said. “So, the thought of going to college is absolutely terrifying to them.”
After his military duty ended in 1986, Greg Stokes of Bowling Green went to college for a couple of years, but never finished and worked a few jobs. Now, the Army veteran often spends hours in the Upward Bound classroom, going there twice a day to prepare for college.
“When I first came here, I couldn’t remember nothing,” Stokes said. “I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer.”
Michael Law of Scottsville enjoyed his four years in the Army in the 1970s. But after years of manufacturing work, he now dreams of going to technical school to be a mechanic, he said.
Upward Bound “has helped me to remember who I was in high school,” he said. “Fractions, that was something I never learned. But I practically know it now.”
Like many veterans, the economy encouraged Army veteran William Goble to take advantage of a free education. After losing his job, the Glasgow resident doesn’t necessarily want to go to college, but he wants to learn computer skills.
“I just wanted to be a kid again after all these years,” he said.
Still, Goble says he regrets not going to college when he was a young veteran and had education money available to him through the GI Bill.
“There’s no excuse” for not using that money, he said.
The GI Bill covers all tuition at public schools and up to $17,000 a year at private schools.
A majority of veterans seek postsecondary education at public schools, such as WKU.
When they enter WKU, the Military Student Services department helps veterans adjust to college life through emotional, educational and financial support. The department now serves more than 1,400 military students, a number that is increasing, said Tonya Archey, military student services director and a Navy veteran.
“With high unemployment rates, many are choosing to use their education benefits to increase their earning potential,” she said in an email to the Daily News.
Financial issues are some of the biggest obstacles a majority of WKU’s military students face. On average, those students are living on $840 a month. Many are trying to work, go to school and raise families with limited income and health benefits, Archey said.
Archey’s department is trying to combat that problem. It plans to open a Veterans Resource Center this fall, which will expand the financial and career counseling already offered.
Military students can also get free textbooks through the Textbooks for Troops program, which saves students an average of $400 each semester. The program, run by Military Student Services, is a lending library – students turn in books when their class is over and they are re-used, Archey said.
Those services entice several veterans, such as Stokes, to give college another try. Stokes plans to pursue a liberal arts degree when he finishes his work at Upward Bound. While there are hardships associated with life after the military, the opportunity to return to school is uplifting, he said.
“When you come here you feel good. When you leave you feel good,” Stokes said. “There’s nothing sad here.”