Those who've served in the armed forces bring unique interpersonal skills to the classroom.

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Veterans who are trading helmets for mortarboards bring skills and experiences to the classroom that often surpass those of typical college students, but financial challenges can make success after service even more elusive, according to some veterans.

“Veterans are very focused, and now their mission is to get an education,” says Ann Beck, assistant director of Veteran’s Services at Western Washington University. “They also have a really good perspective on things. They may get frustrated or tired, but they know what they are capable of because they’ve been pushed to the limit and have seen a lot more.”

But one of the toughest transitions from soldier to student may be the financial burden of paying for college. Veterans’ higher education benefits, such as the GI Bill and Post 9/11 Bill, sometimes run out before vets earn their degrees.

WWU senior Joel Aparicio separated from the Army after eight years and worked as a civilian for Lockheed Martin and the Transportation Security Administration before pursuing a college education in his early 30s.

“I’ve traveled all over the world and served in three different war zones,” Aparicio says. “I’ve seen the best and the worst of humanity, and I fold that experience into writing my papers, which is an advantage most students don’t have.”

Like his classmates, Aparicio struggles with finances. He enrolled at Skagit Valley College just as his original GI Bill was lapsing, and his Post 9/11 GI Bill ran out after he transferred to Western. Smaller scholarships at Western have helped with art supplies, but he’ll be able to graduate thanks to Western’s Veteran Completion Waiver, which covers tuition for Western students who have exhausted their other higher ed veterans benefits.

The transition from military life hasn’t been easy, Aparicio says, and he relates better with his professors than his 18- to 22-year-old peers, but Aparicio finds a lot of support at the Western’s Veteran Service Office. In return, he finds joy in supporting other students.

“One of the reasons I’m in art is because I want to create things instead of destroying things,” he says. “I have more life experience and have been able to help my other classmates as much as possible and give freely of my time.”

But the WWU waiver doesn’t cover expenses beyond undergraduate tuition, and Aparicio doesn’t know how he’ll be able to finance his dream of obtaining a master’s in fine art.

In addition to mental and physical fortitude, those who’ve served in the armed forces bring unique interpersonal skills to the classroom. They’ve been challenged to work alongside peers and for leaders they didn’t always agree with and who are very different from them. This fosters a willingness to engage in classroom conversations where different points of view are being shared.

“They have such diverse experiences,” Beck says of veteran students. “They’ve had to work around the world with people from all different backgrounds, cultures, families and belief systems to come together and accomplish something.”

That world experience and ability to work in varied groups is something veteran and WWU alumnus Victor Cleveland also brought to the classroom. He was in the Navy stationed in Everett and earned a bachelor’s in human services in March 2017 from Western’s location at Everett University Center. He plans to become a counselor to help those struggling with mental health issues – especially veterans.

Cleveland also benefited from WWU’s Veteran Completion Waiver after his GI Bill and Post 9/11 Bill ran out. Even with the waiver, he lived with roommates, took out loans and worked more than 70 hours per week in two full-time jobs around classes to make ends meet. Since graduating, he continues to work two jobs while applying to graduate school. “To make livable wages in my field, you have to have a master’s,” he says.

“This country has to do a better job taking care of our veterans,” he adds. “We’re going out there to protect people’s lives, but we feel the same energy is not being returned to us when we come back. We want to come back and be part of the workforce, but not a lot of these companies are stepping up and providing the opportunities. That’s why 20 percent of the homeless are veterans. What’s the incentive to sign up if we come back with issues and we can’t get support? What are we fighting for?”

Western Washington University’s Veteran Completion Waiver covers tuition until graduation for veterans after their GI Bills have been exhausted. According to Beck, it’s the only program of its kind in Washington.

Learn more about veterans services at WWU.