Educational Experience

Educational Experience

“Whatever It Takes,” says one military slogan. It belongs to the Marines, but the sentiment seems to apply to scores of veterans in greater New Haven, who have flocked to college in greater numbers in recent years and are often showing their younger classmates what it means to take on the challenges of your own education.

“When you come into the classroom here, you’re already focused on exactly what you should be doing,” says René Rivera, a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University who served 11 years in the US Marine Corps, including a deployment to Iraq. Despite that kind of life experience, entering college can be a whole new challenge for many veterans, who have mastered their military jobs but find “it’s very humbling to know that you don’t know everything,” Rivera says.

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Jack Mordente knows all about those challenges. He heads up the largest campus program for vets in the area and reportedly one of the longest-standing in the nation. After serving in the Army’s medical service corps as a clinical social worker for four years of active duty and eight more as a reservist during the Vietnam War, Mordente took the job of coordinator of veterans and military affairs at Southern. At the time—1975—federal grants were helping schools create services for veterans, who had 10 years to use their education benefits, Mordente explains. By the mid-’80s, government funding was drying up, and many campuses closed their veterans’ centers. But Southern had hired Mordente on as a permanent employee, and 44 years later, he’s still helping younger generations of vets navigate the complex system of governmental education and disability benefits as well as the day-to-day challenges of college life.

In Southern’s inviting veterans’ suite, students work in the quiet study room on desktop computers, which come with the special perk of free printing, or hang out in the adjacent lounge, where a March Madness basketball game is on the TV. It’s a private space where they understand each other and can be themselves.

“Our sense of humor is different from the general population,” Southern veteran Renée Bennett says with a laugh. A full-time undergraduate who served in security forces administration with the Air Force in Texas, the 31-year-old says it’s sometimes hard to relate to younger students, whose first question is often, How many people did you kill? “It’s a load off not having to be on our Ps and Qs so much,” she says of the refuge the center provides. At the same time, she’s aware that, like other students with a military background, she brings something to campus: a new perspective in classroom discussions and a broader view of career options for fellow students.

While Southern’s program may be the oldest and the largest, veterans—as well as active-duty reservists and National Guard soldiers—can be found on every local campus, including Yale’s, where veteran liaison Jack Beecher, a retired US Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, says people are sometimes surprised to find them. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) left Yale in 1970 amid wartime unrest and reported disputes with the faculty over credit for ROTC classes and only recently returned, in 2012. Beecher, who inaugurated his support position in 2016, points out that Yale’s military history stretches all the way back to the Continental Army. Today, the university has 14 military undergraduates and about 38 military graduate students. Many of the undergrads come through the Eli Whitney Students Program for non-traditional scholars, which gives them more support and more time to complete their degrees, but Beecher says many of them don’t need that extra time. “They’re on a mission. They’re extremely motivated, and they are very impressive people… who’ve served the country and been responsible for other people’s lives and welfare,” he says.

Just up the hill, Albertus Magnus College, too, is catering to a new veteran population. The school was recently honored for its “veteran friendly culture on campus” by being named Connecticut’s first Purple Heart School by The Military Order of the Purple Heart, “an organization that provides services and support for combat veterans,” an Albertus news release says.

Albertus undergraduate J.C. Cummings, a 29-year-old who served seven and a half years as an operations specialist with the US Navy in San Diego, Italy and Spain, says one of the challenges of civilian life for veterans is the lack of structure. “Throughout the military it’s 24/7,” he says, so vets often need to learn to use their own time efficiently. Like Bennett at Southern, he often finds himself in the position of role model for younger students, both in the classroom and as a player on the Falcons’ baseball team.

Albertus’s veteran liaison, Thomas Noonan, an Army veteran who served eight years including a tour in Iraq, opened the school’s new office last fall. In addition to helping veterans navigate benefits and running on-campus events as other liaisons do, Noonan is building an online platform for the college’s community of 70 veterans, many of whom are part-time and online students.

The more traditional student population at Quinnipiac University includes just under 200 veterans, about 155 of whom are undergraduates, says Jason Burke, director of veteran and military affairs, a position created in 2013. Like many private institutions, Quinnipiac participates in the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship Program, part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which fills the funding gap between the government’s aid and the actual cost of education by splitting the balance 50/50 with the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Burke, himself a veteran of the US Navy, says that while some schools limit the number of students they’ll fund through Yellow Ribbon, Quinnipiac extends the benefit to as many students as need it. Outside donors cover students who may not be eligible for Yellow Ribbon.

Also like many of its peer schools, Quinnipiac is actively recruiting veteran students, recognizing what they bring to campus. Whereas “most of our students come directly from high school,” as Burke notes, veterans are typically bringing more life experience into the classroom—where they’re learning, yes, but also doing a little teaching of their own.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features J.C. Cummings and Thomas Noonan. Image 2 features Robert Mulka, Jack Mordente and Peter Lofaro.

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