During his first week at Penn, Tristan O’Brien walked into the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, looking for his classroom. Another man walked into the Center, also looking for a classroom. When they couldn’t find them, a security guard directed them to the building next door, the Annenberg School for Communication.
After a few steps, they turned to each other and, at the same time, asked: “You were in the military, weren’t you?”
“Just the way he carried himself,” O’Brien — a United States Navy veteran and a junior in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies — explained. “He looks like he would have been military.”
Running into another veteran, however, is a low chance event at Penn. Veteran students represent less than 1 percent of the student population at the University. There are 202 identified veteran students, according to Berthilla Wiscount , director of Graduate Financial Aid Programs. The exact number of veterans is hard to pin down because veterans self-identify, and some may choose not to report.
As troops continue to return from Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans at Penn say the community is growing in number. Now, the Student Veteran Association is circulating a petition requesting that the University establish a resource center with one dedicated staff member for veterans on campus. A month after it was released, the petition has collected 518 signatures.
However, the petition’s demands will not be met in the short term.
“The University is aware of the issues the students are presenting and the petition. We are not pursuing a center or dedicated staff member for veterans at this time, because we’ve already agreed to further study the specific needs of our veteran students,” Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Hikaru Kozuma said in an email.
In response to the University’s current decision, Wharton senior Timothy Kolb , the president of Penn Student Veterans Association, said he understood that it takes time for changes to happen.
“The coordinator is our most pressing need — someone with the interests of student veterans foremost in mind who can reach out to different University departments in an official capacity,” he said. “Every other federally-protected minority has a person or office that represents their concerns.”
Returning from the military, the biggest challenge that many veterans face is the sense of loneliness.
“The hardest thing I’ve found coming here is that there’s nobody that has your back,” said Deborah Trimble, an LPS senior who served in the Air Force for eight years. Unlike in the military, where time is ma naged for each person and every task is done in a team, in college everyone is on their own, she said.
Engineering junior Tyrell McCurbin agreed. “It was just rare that you will find people that are able to relate to you and people who understand the experience you had.”
McCurbin was deployed in Iraq, like many recently returned veteran students. After surviving through the battlefield and making it back to campus, some think that many Penn students take their freedom for granted.
The age difference adds another level of distance between them and typical Penn undergraduates. After years of service, veteran students are usually over 26 years old when they enter Penn. Most veterans don’t live on campus, and some need to take care of their families or work part-time jobs after school.
“You have this challenge as being older and being a little ostracized, because you are different from everybody,” Trimble said. She has found that her closest friends are other LPS students.
Many veterans keep quiet about their status because it can draw uneasy responses.
“Oftentimes , there are people who don’t know how to respond. So it can be awkward for somebody to find out that you are not a typical student, you are a veteran,” McCurbin said.
Occasionally, veterans receive questions that can be hurtful and are considered taboo. When Trimble introduced herself as a veteran in her first semester at Penn, she received some difficult questions.
“Things like, did you kill somebody, or do you have PTSD?” she said. “People have this idea of the military which is often very incorrect.”
She decided not to talk about her veteran status, until this semester.
Most of the time, though, people respond to veteran students in a supportive and friendly way .
Because there are so few veteran students at Penn, finding other veterans can be a challenge — it requires both good luck and good eyes.
“One time I was taking chemistry last year, and I noticed somebody had on some familiar boots, ” McCurbin said. He approached the student and found out that he was involved with the military.
Besides spotting them in class and on the street, veteran students usually get to know other veterans through the introduction by their academic advisors and through events such as LPS gatherings.
In 2012, Cory Boatwright — a 2014 LPS graduate and Air Force veteran — founded the Penn Student Veteran Association. Since last year, the group has worked on the petition requesting more resources for veterans.
Trimble said a resource center would be important to provide a home for veterans on campus. “I would know if I am struggling with something this week, I can just go somewhere and meet somebody, because that’s where the veterans are. There’s going to be somebody there.”
Another area of challenge for veterans — aside from the social transition — is academics.
Majoring in public health and doing pre-med at Penn, Trimble sat in the same organic chemistry classroom with other Penn students who are 15 years younger than her.
“I feel like I don’t have the capacity to memorize stuff like they do,” she said, commenting that the class is “a little too much memorizing for [her] pleasure.”
The first two semesters had been a struggle for Trimble, who was home-schooled before her military service. She frequented Weingarten Learning Resources Center, the Writing Center and got help from a language tutor.
But gradually, she figured out her own method of learning. “I teach an empty classroom with chalkboards. There’s nobody in the classroom, but I just try to teach the lesson.”
O’Brien — the student who ran into another veteran in the Annenberg Center — said he has an advantage in classes that touch on real-world experience. When his professor taught about the Iraq War, O’Brien could talk about his personal experience.
“I said, I was there, and these people are kind of like this...” O’Brien said. Later, in a recitation on 9/11, he talked about how the event prompted him to join the military. Most of his classmates recounted their vague memories from elementary school.
However, O’Brien said that he performed better academically after returning from the military, but felt a time crunc h to catch up with his peers.
“I do better in school now than I ever would have before, because you have that discipline background. You come in, and you are like, ‘This is your job,’” O’Brien said.
O’Brien applied to Penn when he was deployed in Afghanistan. Growing up outside of Philadelphia, he served in the U.S Navy for six years after graduating from high school.
Two years into the military, he decided that he wanted to go back to school and found out about Penn’s LPS program from his friend.
“They should go down to the bases and make travel trips because they can get some really good and really smart people in if they advertise more,” O’Brien said. The petition also advocates that Penn increase its promotion among the military.
As a prospective student, O’Brien received guidance from Kathy Urban , the director of LPS.
“[Veteran students] have really done a lot of thinking on why they want to come to Penn,” Urban said. “Oftentimes they would contact me before they separate from the military, and then we would identify some courses for them to take somewhere else to create a college transcript, and then they will apply.”
With the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program, O’Brien, like many other veterans, was able to support his education and receive a stipend for living expenses.
The petition also requests assistance with veterans’ financial needs, such as coordinating with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for financial aid and educating veterans about potential scholarship opportunities.
“They need more people just to work on the financial aid stuff, like more people working in the GI Bill office,” O’Brien said.
However, just like other adult students who come to Penn at an older age, veterans are concerned about the time pressure of finishing a degree and finding a job.
“I am 27. I want to be in law school as soon as possible,” O’Brien said. “Being older, you want to have certain things done. By the time you are 30, you want to have kids. You want to be done with advanced degrees.”
“I feel like there’s a clock.”
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