Veterans find a home on Penn's campus


Veterans Upward Bound prepares veterans for college and life beyond


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A veteran attends a college fair at Irvine Auditorium as part of VUB’s orientation over the past week.

Photo by Akiff Premjee


Rodney Jubilee helped protect the last Shah of Iran when he sought asylum in Panama from 1979-80. After battling drug and alcohol addictions and spending time in jail, Jubilee is now getting his life back together while preparing for college with the Veterans Upward Bound program at Penn.

VUB is a federally funded program that has been helping veterans apply to and succeed in college at Penn for 33 years. The Office of the Vice Provost for University Life oversees VUB and provides the program with free access to computers.

The program starts each year with a three-day orientation, which began on Tuesday and ended yesterday. It is funded by the United States Department of Education and received new funding for the upcoming year from State Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) on Sept. 5.

The new five-year grant allows the program to take an additional 40 veterans — increasing its total from 120 to 160. However, the $358,696 budget the program received for the upcoming year was not allowed to exceed VUB’s budget from four years ago, when it had fewer veterans, program director Diane Sandefur said.

“They’re trying to have everyone do more with less,” Sandefur said. “We have to serve more students … while costs are going up.”

But Sandefur and her team are not daunted by the task.

“It’s feasible, and we’ll make sure we do it,” she said.

The program exceeded all the objectives it sent to the federal government last year. For instance, 45 percent of the veterans who completed the program in August 2011 enrolled in postsecondary education by the fall, and 77 percent of those went on to continue into their second year.

Now, as part of a benchmark set by the new grant, 60 percent of the students will have to enroll in college by the end of the year in which they complete the program.

“We wanted to make sure we stretched ourselves with these goals,” Sandefur said. “We fully believe the new programming will meet and excel in these objectives.”

Outreach

VUB at Penn is one of 45 programs nationally. Since it is the only program in Pennsylvania — and since there are no programs in New Jersey — it attracts some veterans willing to make a long daily commute to Penn’s campus.

The program has been active for so long that the veteran community has “been aware of us for a long time,” Sandefur said.

Local Veterans Affairs medical centers and offices know about the programs and often refer veterans. Eric Wilcox, who served in Virginia Beach from 1998 to 2003, was referred to the program by a community college’s veteran’s office.

Ruben Roderick found a unique route to VUB. He helped transport President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s body to Kansas after he died of heart failure in Washington, D.C. in 1969.

More than 25 years after his military service ended — he spent time stationed in Texas, Mississippi, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. — he got a job at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. That same year, his position at HUP was terminated and he found another job at the University Archives and Records Center, where he has worked since.

Roderick hopes to take advantage of his Penn employee benefits and get a Ph.D. in history or anthropology after he completes the VUB program and finishes his bachelor’s degree. He was just one credit away from getting his bachelor’s degree at Baruch College, CUNY in 1977, but will likely have to restart his college education since credits are non-transferable after 10 years.

“It’s been 35 years since he was last in college, thus VUB is a great place to re-build his academic foundation after such a long time away from school,” Sandefur said.

Despite VUB’s presence within the veteran community, the program still aims to attract new veterans, especially those who are low income and whose parents did not get a bachelor’s degree. As part of a federal program, VUB is required to have at least two thirds of its veterans meet this “underrepresented” status, Sandefur said.

VUB staff sends mailings to unemployment offices, churches and barbershops throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. TV and radio stations are federally required to air public service announcements advertising the program.

Sandefur and her staff also receive labels of recently discharged veterans and send them mailings directly with information about the program.

Veterans entering the program must be at a high enough academic level to complete coursework. Those who do not score high enough on the ACT COMPASS test are given the resources to enter General Education Development programs and are encouraged to reapply for VUB. Students who do score high enough but did not finish high school are able to enter the program and take introductory courses while at the same time preparing for their GED.

“Our classes augment what they’re doing to get a GED, so we’re happy to support them in that way,” Sandefur said.

The curriculum

VUB’s curriculum is designed not only to teach veterans the skills and knowledge they need for college, but also to simulate the college experience with an intensive schedule.

The veterans take literature, math, science, grammar, Spanish and computer literacy. The computer courses are not required by the federal grant, but Sandefur is happy to offer them and is grateful for VPUL’s help.

“Some veterans have never sat at a computer so it’s a real privilege to teach them this technology of communicating and having the world at your fingertips just by having a computer,” she said.

Many of the instructors are current or past Philadelphia high school teachers. Some of the computer instructors are Penn employees who work in technology support areas.

Most classes are taught at David Rittenhouse Laboratory and the McNeil Building, some at the same time as regular Penn classes. This gives the veterans and Penn students a chance to interact.

“The veterans love it and Penn students love it,” Sandefur said. “They enjoy knowing veterans and hearing about their experiences. It’s a win-win situation.”

Veterans commute from near and far to attend class. Some live at the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House at 41st and Baltimore streets — where Jubilee spent two weeks earlier this summer — while others commute from parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania via public transportation, often traveling as much as an hour and a half to get to campus.

And after the commute, they often have a long day ahead of them. Some start classes at 11 a.m. and finish at 9:30 p.m.

Many veterans in VUB are battling both physical service-related injuries and mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are still dealing with the effects of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, which can cause Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Others have had trouble readjusting to civilian life after serving in combat and turn to drugs, alcohol or crime.

But veterans like Carmen Jones, who served around the globe in the U.S. Navy from 1989-99, do their best to attend every single class.

One time, Jones came to her language class against her doctor’s orders after having surgery and had to stand for five hours straight because of her condition. When she’s feeling depressed about the death of her twin brother Albert Jones Jr., who drowned in 2007, her friends in the program come get her to make sure she comes to class.

“It’s like a family here,” she said, referring to both her fellow veterans and the program employees.

“Everybody has their back, and they know it,” Sandefur added. “We’re all here to support one another and to see dreams achieved.”

Life after VUB

Many of the veterans involved in the program have dreams beyond completing a post-secondary education.

Roderick, for example, wants to write his dissertation on William Lynch, who gave a documented speech in 1712 in Virginia that changed the course of American slavery.

Roderick explained that Lynch separated slaves by color, having those with darker skin color work in the fields. This method pitted slaves against each other and prevented them from organizing together against their plantation owner.

Several other veterans in the program know exactly what they want to do after earning their bachelor’s degree.

Jones is hoping to go into social services and help troubled youth better understand the law. Her 20-year-old son has run into trouble with the law because he knew little about it, she said.

Jones learned on Wednesday about an internship that fit well with her interest in social services at a college fair in Irvine Auditorium. The fair, which was part of VUB’s orientation, featured representatives from Temple University, Drexel University and other local schools.

Other veterans are excited about the opportunity to complete a post-secondary education and are open to many different career paths after that. Wilcox likes aircrafts — he worked with them in the military — and photography but took advantage of the college fair to explore different options.

Other graduates have the option of coming back to work for VUB. The program staff currently includes two graduates and four other veterans.

Sandefur and the VUB staff keep in touch with the veterans for six years after they complete the program. This year, they will begin to hire alumni as mentors to work with current veterans in the program.

“We do our best for the veterans who served this country,” Sandefur said. “They deserve that and we owe it to them.”

Todd Derby, a counselor who works with the veterans on study skills, test prep, finances and housing, considers it an honor to work with veterans.

“They’re a tremendous joy to work with,” he said. “We learn so much more than we teach them.”

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