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Vet enrollment booms at Olympic College

Randall Burgess uses one of the computers available to veterans at the new Olympic College Veterans and Military Support Center Oct. 3, 2011.  - Tom James/staff photo
Randall Burgess uses one of the computers available to veterans at the new Olympic College Veterans and Military Support Center Oct. 3, 2011.
— image credit: Tom James/staff photo

Veteran enrollment is up for the second straight year at Olympic College, and more vets than ever are putting the school’s new Veterans and Military Support Center to good use.

In the first two weeks of fall, the center saw the number of veteran students signing in to its register almost quadruple, said Lawrence Smith, a student employee at the center. Staff at the center had been expecting an increase, Smith said Monday, not only with the start of the busier fall quarter, but as vets seek to gain an edge in a competitive economy. Vets are leaving the services and using Post 9-11 GI Bill to fall back on.

“We knew it was gonna happen as soon as Obama announced the troop drawdown,” Smith said.

Dan Oranski, a Navy veteran using the center, said he appreciated having the center available, and had definitely noticed the vet presence at the college in his two quarters.

“Even over the summer, I would say most of my classes were at least 15 percent [veterans],” Oranski said.

Oranski said he didn’t feel like he needed the center, but that for some reason he felt more comfortable there.

“It’s a more comfortable environment for me. I don’t really know why.”

Opened in spring of 2011, the center provides a place for veterans to hang out, relax and get help finding services they need, said Ron Shade, Vice President of Student Services at OC.

Wendy McFadden, who oversees the college’s processing of veteran applicants seeking to use their GI Bill benefits, said that fall 2011 has been “the biggest quarter ever” that her office had experienced.

Documents provided by McFadden and the Student Services Office showed an increase in the number of students McFadden’s office served every quarter since 2009, with the exception of summer. While this summer and fall’s numbers are still unavailable, McFadden said this fall was definitely proving even busier for her office than last fall.

The 2010 school year saw the largest jump in veteran enrollment in the last three years, said Dianna Larsen, dean of enrollment services at the college. That year, the school’s fall veteran enrollment jumped 15 percent from the year before. This year’s veteran enrollment is already keeping pace with last year’s, Larsen said, even though they showed only those students that had registered by the ninth day of the quarter. Usually, Larsen said, the college continues receiving registrations throughout the first two weeks of the quarter, meaning this year’s numbers could still rise.

Larsen said her office does not track other student demographics like income, and that she couldn’t comment on the effect of veterans on or compared to other demographics within the student body.

For the college as a whole, veterans are valuable for the experience they bring, Shade said.

“The diversity brings an awareness of things you wouldn’t have if everyone was the same cookie-cutter type of person,” Shade said.

Still, Shade said, sometimes that experience also comes at a price. Having already adjusted to a career and life outside of school, Shade said, veterans generally have a larger adjustment to make than those students coming straight from high school. Adding to that post-traumatic stress disorder and off-campus commitments unique to older students, Shade said, and the result is a population that brings diversity and a unique set of needs.

Sterne McMullen, a history professor at the college, said he sees that diversity in his classes. The veterans he encounters, he said, are often more focused and patient. Some veterans, he said, are frustrated by what they see as a disconnect between presented material and their experience, particularly in history or politics. At the same time, he said, those veterans that can find ways to share their broader knowledge in the classroom typically excell, often becoming some of his best students.

Dr. Lori Zoellner, an associate proffessor of psychology at the University of Washington, said that the transition out of military life and into a more ambiguously structured institution like college can be tough for any veteran, whether they have PTSD or not. Zoellner is also the director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress at the university, and works with veterans in her practice as a psychologist.

At college, Zoellner said, “there’s a whole new set of rules, and a whole new set of expectations.”

In general, Zoellner said, the more different a new system is from someone’s previous experience, the harder it is for them to adjust, making strong social nets all the more important. Still, Zoellner said, the social experience can be even more enriching when it includes not only people who share experiences, but those who don’t.

“Part of the college experience is meeting people who don’t see things the exact same way and being challenged by those people,” Zoellner said.

David Siemen, a 22-year Navy veteran and retiree in his first term at the college, headed back to school after two careers: one in the military, one in the civilian world, working in electronics. Even though he wasn’t fresh out of the service, he said, the transition was still a difficult one that the Veteran and Military Support Center was helping him navigate

“We’re all used to things being very structured, very black and white, but here there’s a lot of non-structured stuff. And that takes some getting used to. We’re used to ‘hit the ground running, 100 miles an hour and go,’” said Siemen. “Here it’s a slower pace.”

In the military, Siemen said, “you’re used to a set routine.” From books to tests to grades, he said, everything in his experience was “A, B, C, or D.” In college he said, tests suddenly had essay questions, grades were suddenly on a curve, and even showing up late was suddenly apparently OK.

The center, he said, is a place where he can study and relax, and also be around other vets who share some of the same experiences.

“Everybody helps everybody in there,” said Siemen. “Sometimes it’s nice just to talk shop with guys who know what you go through. “

Recently, Siemen said, a vet came in who just needed to talk. Vets at the center, he said, listened.

“We understand where he’s coming from, so we don’t judge. We’ve been there.”

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