GREENSBORO — Dressed in jeans and a UNCG sweatshirt, Tavia Brightwell looks like any other college student.
But just a couple of years ago, the 27-year-old Brightwell wore a different uniform — that of a United States Marine.
Now a senior studying English education, she has joined the growing number of students on college campuses across the state and nation who have served in the military.
“We’re becoming much more visible on campus, and I love it,” Brightwell said.
At UNCG, the number of students affiliated with the military grew from 259 in 2008 to 476 last year, school officials said.
Colleges attribute the spike in numbers in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides generous education benefits.
“We were prepared to a degree for the added workload of those Post-9/11 students,” said Dedrick Curtis, UNCG’s veteran and military services coordinator. “But I don’t think any of us could predict what the actual increase in numbers was going to look like.”
Campuses that reported a few years ago having just a few hundred students who were veterans are now enrolling as many as 1,000, said Mike Dakduk, executive director of the national Student Veterans of America, a national group designed to provide military veterans with the resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and beyond.
Dakduk said more than 1 million veterans and their family members are using military benefits on campuses nationwide.
And the number will continue to rise as more soldiers return from deployment and take advantage of their benefits, he said. That means colleges are having to address their needs, whether it be handling issues with tuition and benefits, or providing a network of counseling and other support services on campus.
“Right now it is critical that we make sure that university presidents and chancellors and leaders and campus communities and communities at-large are aware of how to best support veterans,” Dakduk said.
A welcoming environment
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is akin to a full-ride scholarship, Dakduk said.
Veterans’ full in-state tuition and fees are paid at public schools. They get a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books. The bill also allows military members to transfer part or all of their benefits to spouses or their children.
“There’s more emphasis being placed on veterans and them getting their education, which is great,” said Flora Taylor, coordinator of veteran and military assistance programs at GTCC. Taylor said the number of military students at the school has doubled to about 600 since she arrived on campus in 2007.
Dakduk said those benefits have tremendous potential to transform veterans’ lives, but colleges have to be prepared to help them.
“I travel the country, and I meet with university leaders and student veterans, and I see some campuses that are doing a fine job,” Dakduk said. “And then I go to other campuses, and I see that there is tremendous work to be done.”
Both UNCG and N.C. A&T have been recognized for their efforts to create “military friendly” environments on their campuses.
At A&T, those efforts include celebrating those students during events on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
The university is also helping students to organize a veterans association on campus.
“We try to do as many supportive activities as possible to make our veterans welcome,” said Judy Rashid, A&T’s dean of students. “We are welcoming our veterans, and we stand ready to serve them as best we know how.”
At UNCG, helping veterans navigate campus life became a full-time job for Curtis, who is a Navy veteran.
Two years ago, the university created a task force to recommend ways the campus could better serve its military community.
Some of the policy changes that resulted include waiving the application fee when a student reapplies for school after returning from deployment and letting students who are deployed register as if they were on campus.
“You can register from Afghanistan,” Curtis said.
The university has also set aside money to help make up the tuition difference for out-of-state veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs matches that amount.
And UNCG revived its chapter of the Student Veterans Association as a support system for veterans on campus.
“It is the strongest I’ve ever seen it, maybe the strongest it’s ever been at UNCG,” Curtis said. “It’s got a huge core of officers and a lot of active members. Their focus really is connecting with those vets that are coming in, helping them transition socially, showing them the ropes.”
Anthony Perkins, president of UNCG’s chapter, said veterans often enter college with the singular focus of getting an education.
“If they have a choice of going to study or going to a social, they’re going to study,” said Perkins, a 23-year-old public health major and member of the Army Reserves. “The veteran population seems to kind of be a little withdrawn from everybody else.”
So Perkins said the group tries to draw those students in through various events held both on and off campus.
Brightwell joined the organization after seeing a flier about it shortly after she started classes in spring 2011.
She doesn’t have many veteran friends who live in the area, so she relies on her campus peers for support.
“It’s always nice to know that there is another backbone if you need it,” she said.
Coveted in the classroom
Brightwell deployed twice during her four years of active duty, including once to Iraq.
“When you kind of take a step back and realize what it was that you did go through, what you were surrounded by, how anything could have happened ... I just get emotional sometimes thinking about it,” she said.
Some say those experiences add value to the college learning environment.
“Veterans offer a diversity to the classroom by virtue of their experience, and they’re able to actually talk in real-world terms,” said Kimrey Rhinehardt, the UNC system’s vice president for federal relations.
Rhinehardt said most UNC campuses have seen spikes in their veteran and military numbers.
In spring 2012 — the latest figures available from the UNC system — East Carolina University in Greenville had the largest number of military-affiliated students, 959. UNC-Charlotte had the second-highest enrollment, with 848 students. Fayetteville State University ranked third, with a military population of 720.
The UNC system is trying to capitalize on those increases. Those students are a central part of UNC’s long-range planning as leaders look at ways to boost the number of North Carolinians who hold bachelor’s degrees. They have named improving services for military students as a strategy toward reaching this goal.
Rhinehardt said military students’ discipline and maturity are model characteristics for their younger peers in the classroom.
“They oftentimes possess those very characteristics that we’re trying to instill in the freshman-high school population,” she said.
A juggling act
Many veterans who enroll in college are doing so for the first time and not only face reintegrating into civilian life but becoming acclimated to college life.
“It can be challenging, but veterans are very resilient,” said Dakduk, the executive director of the Student Veterans of America. “So I think that they’re very successful.”
UNCG boasts a 72 percent graduation rate for its veterans, which Curtis attributes to their maturity and greater sense of responsibility and duty learned while in the service.
“So when they get out, they treat college as if it’s their job, just like they treated the military as if it was their job,” he said.
They often have to balance school with remaining obligations to the military. Required training for such reservists as Perkins and Brightwell could come during exam time or the weekend before a big test.
“It can be troublesome going back and forth, back and forth,” Perkins said of the balance between college and military life.
But Brightwell said she wouldn’t take back her time in the military, nor her experience as a veteran student.
“I am absolutely proud of the fact that I did it,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a veteran here on campus at UNCG, and I’m happy to be a part of a growing veteran community here ... and kind of leaving the mark, setting the pace.”