September 21, 2008 – UC Berkeley is 7,450 miles from Baghdad – a long way by any measure.
For veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that distance pales compared with the chasm between military and student life. A new class at Cal is trying to help bridge that gap
“It’s a lot different here,” said former Marine Mike Ergo, 27, on a recent Friday morning.
Class was about to start. The weekly course, Veterans in Higher Education, unique in the UC system, is part of a campaign Cal is waging on many fronts to make vets feel at home on a campus with a long history of anti-war activism.
“It’s about making the transition,” said instructor Ron Williams, campus coordinator of Re-entry Student and Veterans Programs and Services.
The class, which has 22 students, explores strategies for academic success, including time management, developing relationships with mentors, and ways to study and prepare for tests. It also looks at concerns raised by previous veterans at Cal and connects new vets to campus and community resources.
Williams started off the third class of the semester by asking what basic training was like. Suddenly, the Dwinelle Hall classroom was full of talk about shower curtain inspections, folding underwear and how to properly make a bed.
“What was the point of basic training?” Williams wondered.
And then Ergo said, “A big part of it is that you can do more than you think.”
Williams urged the 15 men and two women in the room to equate the first semester at Cal with basic training. “Every day I tell myself, ‘I did the Marine Corps, I can do this,’ ” one said.
There are 77 known veterans beginning their studies this year at Cal, where 151 vets were enrolled last spring. The majority arrive as transfer students, with majors ranging from engineering to philosophy, and all have a cross-campus team at their disposal to help with such things as admissions, financial aid and psychological counseling.
Cal’s veteran-friendly programs reflect Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Troops to College initiative, designed to draw former members of the military to California’s public universities and colleges. A vastly more generous federal GI Bill, which will take effect in August and provide many veterans with full tuition and living expenses, is likely to attract a new influx of vets to higher education.
At Cal, the academic challenges can be particularly daunting.
“I’ve learned more in a week here than a semester’s worth at community college,” Bryan Garcia, 27, told the class.
He discovered he has to be a lot more organized these days and is using a calendar planner for the first time in his life.
The vets talked about how to read and review, study and skim.
“I’m very detail-oriented, which is a huge problem for me,” Maurice Delmer said. “It’s very difficult for me to go on to the next thing before understanding the first thing.”
Class co-facilitator Stuart Martin, 23, suggested Wikipedia as a way to “get the big picture handed to you on a silver platter.”
Delmer shuddered. “All those things you can click on,” he said. “I’d be there an hour later. … Stuff’s going in my head, and other stuff is leaving. How do I retain it?”
Another student said it is difficult to return to the civil reserves on weekends.
“It’s easier for me to do the schoolwork,” he said. “But to go back and try to do the military thing – you’re supposed to do what you’re told and follow orders – that’s a harder transition.”
Martin, a Persian translator while in Iraq, said, “Thinking independently is not valued in the military, but it is here.”
Delmer spent four years in the Marines and participated in the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.
“This class really touches on all the fears, the questions, the disconnects that I have,” he said afterward. “It is overwhelming.”
The 26-year-old grew up in Berkeley, and his mother worked on campus.
“I’d root for the (football) team, but I never felt like I was part of it,” he said.
He still feels that way, partly because he’s older and isn’t living in the dorms or experiencing life away from home for the first time.
Brannely Turpen, a former Marine who graduated last spring, helped Williams – who is not a vet – develop content for the class, which uses “Courage After Fire” as its only textbook.
“That first semester is really intimidating,” said Turpen, 33, who received a degree in anthropology. “There’s always that question, ‘Should I really be here?’ “
The Sacramento native said his family and friends figured some denizens of Cal, a campus fabled for its radical past, would throw eggs at him.
“But people were more interested in my experiences than turned off,” Turpen said. “No one ever tried to question my morality.”
Jason Deitch, who founded the Cal Veterans Student Group in 2004, emphasized the distinction between the university and Berkeley, where the City Council made it clear the downtown Marine recruiting station was not welcome and where demonstrators regularly protest its presence.
It’s also a different era, he said, in which being anti-war does not mean being anti-troop.
“When my dad got back from Vietnam and landed at SFO, he promptly got spat on,” said Deitch, a graduate student in ethics and social theory who served in the Army. “Berkeley has an anti-war tradition, but nobody knows more about being anti-war than vets. Plenty of vets on this campus are anti-war, myself included.”