The small crew of five Fresno State students had a classroom to call their own: shiny whiteboards, a new projector system, a lounge next door with a coffeemaker and computers.
The students, all veterans who have made the pilgrimage in and out of college-degree programs since leaving the service, last semester attended Fresno State's new six-week veterans education program that offers refresher classes and career counseling free.
The goal: make it affordable to reintegrate the adult students into civilian life, a world many of them have wandered through for years without finding a way to adjust.
But just months after its maiden session, the veterans program is scrambling to find a sustainable source of funding.
It started with a $100,000 bankroll through California State University's Commission on the Extended University, Fresno State and donations — but those dollars have dried up after funding student scholarships, supplies and transportation.
"We've been able to fund things as they've come up, but we're nowhere near where we need to be to sustain this," said Scott Moore, associate dean of continuing and global education at Fresno State, who noted the program has raised about 10% of its $75,000 target.
Moore said he's had no luck so far with grant applications. Imposing fees is one option, said program coordinator Daniel Bernard, but he hopes community and corporate support will help keep the program viable.
California, No. 1 in the nation for resident veterans, has nearly 22,000 college-age former service members. With another 500,000 veterans under age 50, J.P. Tremblay, deputy secretary at the California Department of Veteran Affairs, said the state has become home to several robust veterans programs.
Fresno State currently serves about 400 vets, a majority of whom attend regular campus classes each semester alongside their civilian counterparts.
But special initiatives for veterans, like the one at Fresno State, are hard to come by in the Valley. The program doesn't require students to use their GI Bill benefits.
"I haven't heard of anything like this, at least not specific to the Valley," Tremblay said.
The two-room veterans education program is stationed in Fresno State's old University High School building. It's a safe space, Bernard said, where the vets can study without the hustle and bustle typical of college campuses.
"They can come back and decompress and talk amongst themselves and feel like a student at Fresno State," he said, "but also have the camaraderie of fellow vets around them."
Unlike students entering college for the first time, some veterans are hamstrung with challenges: post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, homelessness and physical illness.
Education student Iantha Hutchenson, 62, has been homeless for the past 21/2 years. She enlisted in the Army at age 26 after a stint working in a psychiatric hospital, and has since drifted through careers at a bank and an engineering firm.
She has dyslexia and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. But a dearly held memory of watching savings bond commercials with her dad kept prodding her to go back to school.
"He would tell me, 'I want you to go to college,' and that stuck," she said.
She is nearing retirement age, but that didn't prevent her from clinching a spot at California State University, Northridge next semester. She will pursue coursework in physical anthropology, she said, with the goal of becoming a genetics counselor.
"I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I had in my head, 'Oh you won't make any money,' so I detoured," she said. "This time I said, 'What the hell,' I'm going to do what Joseph Campbell said, I'm going to follow my bliss and let whatever happens happen."
Academic instruction is simply different from military training, said Fresno State English professor Tim Skeen. So the program, he said, is tailored to help students like Hutchenson focus on career and education goals.
"When you're a veteran, just coming out of the service and you don't have a family background of higher education, this is an absolutely indispensable program," he said.
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