From Battlefield to Ivy League, on the G.I. Bill

It was a different coping mechanism that backfired on him.

Mr. Baker gravitates toward the front of classes to compensate for hearing loss from repeated exposure to mortar fire. Recently, in his course “Issues in Comparative Politics,” a professor played a short news clip about the electoral process in Iraq. For a split second, a roadside bomb went off in the video, and Mr. Baker, caught off guard and right up close, started shaking.

“I wasn’t in the classroom anymore,” he said later that day. “I wasn’t transported all the way back to Baghdad, but I could feel just the rush of emotions that accompanies something like that — the immediate adrenaline rush, the anxiety that comes with it, the hypervigilance, when I start trying to become very aware of my surroundings, to ensure that nothing is going to go off behind me.”

More than 300,000 veterans and their dependents are enrolled in American institutions of higher education, their numbers swelling as a result of a new, more generous version of the G.I. Bill that Congress passed in 2008. The veterans and their federal benefits are being embraced by community colleges and huge campuses like the University of Texas, as well as by online schools like the University of Phoenix.

They are bringing to the esoteric world of academia the ballast of the most real of real-world experiences, along with all the marks of the military existence, from crew cuts to frayed nerves to a platoon approach to social life.

Perhaps nowhere is this new wave more striking than at Columbia, which more than any other Ivy League institution has thrown out a welcome mat for returning servicemen and women. There are 210 veterans across the university, integrating a campus whose image-defining moment in the past half-century was of violent protests against the Vietnam War.

The campus still tilts heavily to the left, with many students displaying the arty, jaded aura befitting their Manhattan surroundings. But now, students largely welcome the vets, who are both admired and considered something of a curiosity.

The veterans in the undergraduate program attend classes side by side with fresh-faced 18-year-olds, but do not often socialize with them, preferring to gather instead at their own watering hole. In contrast to their classmates, many — though certainly not all — lack stellar high school records, which is what propelled some of them to the military in the first place.

Some also come with post-traumatic stress disorder. The college offers counseling for the disorder, but it is impossible to defend against every trigger.

Each time Mr. Baker goes near a refrigerated soda case, for example, the squealing door reminds him of the whistle of a Katyusha rocket.

‘Oh, That Columbia’

The youngest of four children, Mr. Baker moved as a child from Utah to Texas to Connecticut and back to Texas, nearly flunking out of high school, not once but twice.

“I didn’t care,” he said. “I was more interested in hanging out with my friends than studying.”

After graduating from high school, Mr. Baker was given a month to move out of the house. His parents suggested the military, which his brother and a brother-in-law had already joined. He signed with the Air Force, spending a year in Alaska before heading to Iraq with his civil engineering squadron.

During five years there, he frequently came under fire but was never seriously wounded. The most obvious sign of his war duty is a phrase tattooed in Arabic across his enormous trapezius muscles that spells out “Redemption Through Retribution” — a provocative declaration that he says has layers of meaning, one being his desire for revenge after the loss of a friend during his first tour.

After returning from Iraq, Mr. Baker decided to buckle down. His goal was not high-minded: It was to eventually make enough money to take care of himself and his parents, who now live in Georgia. He enrolled at the Lubbock, Tex., campus of South Plains College, a two-year school, earning a 3.9 grade-point average.

Columbia’s School of General Studies, which offers an undergraduate education for nontraditional students, took notice after spotting his name on a list for Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year colleges. Thus began a courtship that the school has repeated again and again, contacting young veterans directly and even dispatching admissions officers to Marine bases.

“They actually sent me a couple of e-mails, and I thought it was spam,” Mr. Baker said. “I got a package in the mail the next day, and I decided to check out this school. I didn’t have any prospects. I was thinking of going to Texas Tech to become a petroleum engineer. I Googled it and thought, ‘Oh, that Columbia.’ ”

The influx of veterans at Columbia continues a tradition begun in 1947, when the university created the School of General Studies to accommodate the large numbers of World War II veterans on the G.I. Bill.

Over the years, with the ebb and flow of wars, the School of General Studies embraced a wider range of students who had taken time off from academia — ballet dancers, professional athletes, even veterans from other countries.

“I call them tutus and Uzis because they’re all dancers or kids from the Israeli Army,” said the school’s dean, Peter J. Awn.

But with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing, the military presence at Columbia is again on the rise. The school now counts 88 veterans with G.I. benefits among the 1,330 students. The rest of the veterans at Columbia are spread across more than a dozen graduate and professional schools.

The admissions process for the School of General Studies, which some skeptics view as an easier path to a Columbia degree, is somewhat different from that in Columbia College, the university’s largest undergraduate school. But officials insist it is no less rigorous.

Admissions officers look at high school records, test scores and essays. They conduct interviews in person and on the phone. They consider college-level work and real-life experience.

While some of the veterans may indeed have nodded off in high school, the military effectively woke them up.

“We’ve seen again and again that the sheer determination those students demonstrated in the military translates well to their academic success here,” said Curtis M. Rodgers, dean of enrollment management at the School of General Studies. “There’s a particular elite nature that we see in our Marines. We see it, too, with folks who have gone into the special forces in all the branches.”

A Band of Students

While General Studies students take the same courses as other Columbia undergraduates, there are invisible walls between them. For one thing, the average age in General Studies is 29. (One Barnard student calls Mr. Baker “Grandpa.”) Instead of dormitories, General Studies students are offered apartment-style housing reserved for graduate students, helped by the G.I. Bill’s $2,700-a-month housing allowance for New York City.

But even among their contemporaries in General Studies, the veterans are often a group unto themselves.

The moment he stepped on campus, Mr. Baker joined a ready-made community of other veterans. Most afternoons found him lifting weights with Tom Cox, 24, a former Marine from West Hartford, Conn., who also started at Columbia in the fall. Before and after, Mr. Baker pored over calculus and philosophy books in the General Studies lounge, where century-old portraits of academicians peer at a long center table where the veterans sometimes gather.

“Everyone here knows I’m messed up in the head,” Mr. Baker said as one veteran after another entered the study lounge, dispensing soulful handshakes. “I can talk about it and they’re not going to ask me stupid, uninformed questions, and they’re not going to bring it up the next day. And that’s very important.”

Mr. Cox, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it was difficult to relate to students from Columbia College. “The ones who are 18 and 19, it’s tough,” he said. “They haven’t seen anything.”

But he has found students to be genuinely supportive. “Everyone always says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ even if they don’t agree with the war,” he added.

Forty years ago, the climate was much different, with war protests reaching such a pitch that students took over buildings for days on end and violent clashes with the police led to more than 500 arrests and scores of injuries.

Today, veterans are finding that, at least when they are around, the other students tend to tiptoe awkwardly around the war and their experience.

“It’s a reserved curiosity,” said Adam Kurland, 30, a graduate student in the School of Business who is from Shrewsbury, N.J., and served in the Army in South Korea and Iraq. “People are initially hesitant to ask questions because they’re afraid it’s inappropriate or they don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

Mr. Baker said he was keenly aware of the “huge reputation this school has of being antiwar and antimilitary,” which made him apprehensive about coming. Still, he appreciates that nonveterans “moderate their talk” around veterans.

It probably helps that his feelings about the war are complex. “When it first started, I was all idealistic about it,” Mr. Baker said of the war in Iraq. “I thought we were going to go over there and do some good, and by the end of the first deployment, it was very clear that we were absolutely wasting our time there.”

A Generous Bill

The Post-9/11 G. I. Bill, which took effect in August, is proving to be a bonanza for universities. For veterans who served at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001, or were disabled, the program pays the entire tuition at public two- and four-year institutions, in addition to a housing allowance and money for books. The old bill had less generous tuition reimbursements and no housing allowance. The government has paid more than $1 billion in benefits under the new bill alone.

The top three recipients of students under the new G.I. Bill offer many of their courses online: the University of Phoenix, the most by far with 2,054 students; the University of Maryland University College; and American InterContinental University.

At a more traditional school, the University of Texas, where the number of veterans rose to 606 this fall from 419 a year earlier largely because of the new G.I. Bill, officials have moved to streamline information about benefits and services by creating a single Web page. LaToya Hill, assistant dean of students, has pressed the university to hire a full-time veteran services coordinator, although given the economic climate, that is unlikely to happen this year, she said.

“What we have discovered is that when they get discharged, a lot of the veterans are looking for information” Dr. Hill said. “Which institution they choose depends upon the ease of that process.”

Administrators at Columbia are also preparing for a surge. Twenty to 25 more veterans are expected to arrive at the School of General Studies in the spring, and Dean Awn predicted that the overall number would grow “by 60 or 75 a year.”

A provision in the new bill known as the Yellow Ribbon program has made it more affordable for eligible veterans — those who served at least three years since Sept. 11, 2001 — to attend expensive private colleges that pay some of the tuition. Columbia has set aside $1.2 million for Yellow Ribbon students for the current academic year, while the government is expected to pay $5 million on behalf of veterans attending under the new G.I. Bill, not including the housing allowances.

But as the veteran population at Columbia expands, so, too, will its needs.

“One veteran who just graduated had lost his leg below the knee and had a prosthesis,” Dean Awn said. “I can’t imagine we’re not going to get paraplegics or people with vision loss.”

For now, most of the students’ problems relate to adjustment, anxiety and stress. Dr. Richard J. Eichler, executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services, which is part of Health Services at Columbia, said that post-traumatic stress disorder usually involves a “symptom cluster” including flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance and numbing.

One of the goals of treatment, Dr. Eichler said, was to help veterans downshift.

“It makes sense to be on guard when you’re in a combat situation,” he said. “But it’s not so useful in civilian life.”

Mr. Baker was blindsided by the explosion shown in his political science course in part because the class had not touched on the war all semester. But throughout the fall, he found himself reacting to the cacophony and crowds around the Morningside Heights campus.

Mr. Baker is rattled, variously, by the subway, teeming sidewalks, random noises, even the constant chitchat that is a hallmark of college life.

“In closed spaces, if there are seven people or more talking all at the same time, everything feels like it’s pushing in on me, and that triggers aggression,” he said. “I just remove myself from the situation.”

Mr. Baker has developed techniques to make him feel more secure. In a crowded bar or nightclub, for instance, he stands with his back to the wall so that he faces the action. He also sought help from Counseling Services, and during a few sessions, he learned ways to relax by doing breathing exercises.

“The shrink said that anxiety triggers fight or flight,” he said. “There’s a weird yoga thing where you flex a muscle group and focus on it and breathe.”

Oddly, some veterans find solace in their new surroundings.

“The idea of moving to New York City was a little threatening,” said Joseph Raser, a General Studies junior who was in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army and transferred to Columbia from Northeastern University in Boston. “But it’s kind of comforting that there is so much going on, that it’s fast-paced, almost like a deployment.”

V.F.W. of Columbia

Mr. Baker and a number of other veterans hang out a few times a week at Haakon’s Hall, a new restaurant across the street from campus that has become a de facto V.F.W. hall. The owner, James Lenzi, hosted a dozen veterans stuck on campus on Thanksgiving, giving them a free lunch. He did the same on Christmas.

The paternal relationship evolved as the restaurant was about to open in May and the veterans were looking for a place to hold an event.

“I know the miseries of war,” Mr. Lenzi said. “My father and 12 uncles fought in World War II and Korea. I’m working-class, and they are the only ones who talked to me.”

While the veterans get free pitchers of beer and V.I.P. treatment, Mr. Lenzi reaps the benefit of their varied skills: fixing the wireless network, hoisting barrels of beer, updating the Web site, even doing plumbing work.

“It’s like ‘Cheers,’ ” Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Lenzi, in his own way, looks out for the veterans, too.

“What time is your class tomorrow?” he asked Kevin Stendal, a former Marine, on a cold night last month.

“14:40,” was the reply.

After mentally converting the military time to 2:40 p.m., Mr. Lenzi assented to another pitcher of beer for their table.

“I just don’t want them to be hung over,” he said. “They’ve got finals.”

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