GIs Transition From Military Service To College Classroom

Four years ago in volatile southern Baghdad, Captain Troy Vaughn ’11 was in charge of a 32-member scout platoon for the Army, leading more than 250 high-risk counter-insurgency and reconnaissance missions over 15 months. In addition to ensuring the success of the missions and the safety of his troops while dodging snipers’ bullets and searching for Al-Qaeda, Vaughn found that “everyday reality” also commanded his attention.

“Real life doesn’t stop for the soldiers, who can be dealing with all kinds of issues – from family to financial to emotional,” Vaughn says. “My challenge was to take care of the soldiers – ensure they were grounded emotionally and spiritually and had all the support they needed to do their jobs effectively.”

For his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star and rated top platoon leader by his battalion commander.

Today Vaughn, 28, is earning an M.B.A. at the Cox School of Business, where he has studied operations management and honed his leadership skills.

Vaughn is one of the nearly 150 undergraduate and graduate students attending SMU on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides education benefits to military veterans and their dependents. The bill is a 2008 update to the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, which awarded scholarships to World War II veterans to colleges of their choice.

However, beginning in August 2011, changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill create a nationwide cap of $17,500 a year for tuition and fees reimbursement for private universities. SMU’s Division of Enrollment Services and the schools are working on financial arrangements, which include participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an addendum to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, to enable currently enrolled veterans to continue their education at SMU, says Veronica Decena, manager, SMU Registrar’s Office.

“We estimate that at least $200,000 will be needed to cover tuition and fees next academic year where the current GI benefit leaves off,” she adds. “We don’t know if the cap will be supplemented for all students by the Yellow Ribbon Program,” which currently covers only graduate and professional students.

Following, six veterans reflect on their experiences as students at SMU.

Something Bigger Than Yourself

The leadership skills that served Vaughn well while in the military continue to do so at Cox. He has been a member of the M.B.A. Energy Club and was president and a founding member of Veterans in Business, which helps student veterans in their transition from the military to a career in business.

Troy Vaughn

“We’ve grown from five members to nearly 30,” he says. “We’ve built strong connections among ourselves, and we also have connected our members with networking and job opportunities. These students demonstrate discipline and leadership, even in the most challenging situations.”

Holding an internship and part-time position with an energy exploration company while completing his studies, Vaughn has accepted a project manager position with Sharyland Utilities after graduation this May.

A 2004 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Vaughn served in the military for more than five years, most recently as commander of a Texas National Guard infantry company. He was reared in Bulverde, Texas, in a family that takes pride in its patriotism, he says. “In the military, you get a sense of service, of doing something bigger than yourself,” he says. “I’m hoping to achieve that in business.”

Preparing To Deploy

In summer 2011 Sarah Wiita, 24, will deploy for a year as a health care specialist with the U.S. Army Reserves 490th Civil Affairs Battalion. The five members of her civil affairs unit expect to be stationed in the Horn of Africa. They will serve as military liaisons with local authorities and nongovernmental organizations while assessing how best to provide aid and services to residents in need.

“We have been training at least one weekend a month at the Army Reserve Center in Grand Prairie, and more often as we’re preparing to leave,” says Wiita, a junior psychology major and human rights minor in Dedman College.

Sarah Wiita

As the unit’s lone health care specialist, Wiita is headed to Fort Sam Houston for medic training before deployment. She has been studying current events in Africa with her unit and says her courses in SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program also have helped her understand different cultures and histories. “People may think human rights and the Army don’t go together, but the Army does a lot of noncombat operations and tries to make a difference with civilian populations. That’s how I try to represent the military.”

Wiita joined the Reserves in 2008 while earning an Associate’s degree in applied science at Collin County Community College and training as a paramedic and emergency medical technician on an ambulance. “I told the Army recruiter I wanted to be a combat medic,” she says. “I enjoyed my medical work and knew I wanted to continue to do something challenging, something I could dedicate myself to.”

When considering where to continue her college education in 2009, she applied only to SMU because of the strength of its reputation, she says. “I love the campus, and I didn’t want to go to a big state school.”

The Army’s emphasis on discipline has helped her transition to college life and balance coursework with her training and part-time jobs, she says. “I realized I have different perspectives on politics and other topics in my classes, probably because I’ve been working for so long,” she says.

Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program, describes Wiita as a credit to SMU and the country. “Sarah has embraced an understanding of all people’s rights and can use them to the benefit of all in her military operations,” he says.

After serving a year in Africa, Wiita intends to return to SMU to finish her coursework and attend graduate school in psychology. She wants to work with women and children who are victims of trafficking.

“In war zones around the world, the men do the fighting, while the women and kids are left behind and suffer the consequences,” she says. “When I joined the military, I thought about serving our country, and now I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve people around the world.”

Discovering A Passion

When Kashima Jones served in the Navy from 2004 to 2008, she was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She won numerous awards working as a dental technician, providing care to Marines as they deployed to and returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I am so grateful to people who are willing to go to war and make huge sacrifices for all of us back home,” says Jones, 25, who today is a junior biology major in Dedman College and a member of the Navy Reserve. “It was hard to see some not make the trip back.”

Jones’ husband, Necorian, 26, a Navy veteran and active Reservist, is a junior mathematics major in Dedman College. The couple continues to serve one weekend each month as dental technicians at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth.

“Working with dentists helps with my biology classes because they’ve all been down the same road before me,” says Kashima, who is from Miami. She and her husband moved to his hometown of Dallas in 2008 and began their college studies at Mountain View College before transferring to SMU.

Necorian and Kashima Jones

Necorian also is earning a minor in education from the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and both Joneses say they hope to teach: Necorian would like to be a high school math teacher and football coach, while Kashima wants to teach high school biology and eventually serve as a principal. She discovered her passion for the field this year while working with the Dallas college-readiness program, Education Is Freedom.

“I’ve been helping students at a Dallas high school fill out financial aid forms and college applications and get in the mind-set for college,” she says. “I am a first-generation college student, and I remember thinking I didn’t have the tools to go to college. It feels great to help others get there.”

Kashima also is working to form a student organization for SMU’s military members. “It would offer camaraderie and support,” she says. “It could bring together all of us who can relate to life in the military – veterans, reservists, active-duty students, family members – and also anyone who’s interested in learning more about the military.”

Furthering The Mission

Former Petty Officer 2nd Class James Noel, 28, served aboard warships around the world during his six years in the U.S. Navy and two in the Navy Reserve. His first time at sea was at the start of the Iraq war in 2003 on the USS John S. McCain, where he worked as a sonar technician, watching for underwater threats and minefields.

“We had been in the Arabian Gulf for about a week when we heard President Bush’s address to the nation over the ship’s intercom about the start of military operations,” says Noel, a sophomore accounting major in Cox School of Business, with a minor in economics in Dedman College. “It was two or three in the morning, and the war became very real then. We were all determined to focus on our orders and meet our objectives.”

James Noel

After Baghdad was taken by U.S. forces – and 98 straight days on the water – Noel and his shipmates sailed back to their home port in Japan.

“In the military, you’re there for a purpose – not to earn a paycheck, but to serve your country,” he says.

“But all students at SMU, who are working toward their degrees and careers, also are working to further the mission of this country. They’re learning to be the leaders of tomorrow in every field – business, government, medicine, the arts.”

Noel, a Chicago native who always enjoyed visiting family in Texas, transferred to SMU in fall 2010 from Richland College in Dallas, where he discovered his passion for accounting. “I’m enjoying my business classes at Cox and the interaction with professors,” he says. “And I love the atmosphere at SMU, the school spirit, game days and Boulevarding. Even though I’m not a traditional college student, I feel like one here. Everyone – the professors, staff and students – has been very welcoming.”

Noel serves as secretary of the National Association of Black Accountants at Cox, which hosts experts and offers professional development and leadership training. He hopes to start an online retail business after earning his degree.

His military experience taught him to be prepared for anything, Noel adds. “If anything, the Navy was a stepping-stone. Students who haven’t been in the military probably can’t relate, but if you’re just on time, you’re late, and if you’re early, you’re on time,” he says. “I make sure I’m early to class and ready to get to work.

“I do take class seriously. After visiting underdeveloped countries and seeing what people have to do to make a living, I’m grateful for everything I have.”

Finding The Right Fit At A Distance

First Lieutenant Michael D. Gifford II, 29, works with lasers, high-power microwave systems and radiological safety at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gifford, who earned his Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and worked as an engineer in Houston for several years, decided to follow his dream of joining the Air Force in 2008.

Michael D. Gifford II

He was based in Wichita, Kansas, for his first two years in the Air Force. “People in my field are experts in chemical, radiological and nuclear incidents. We’re responders in emergencies – not first responders – but we go in and assess signs and symptoms.” Now at Kirtland, he works primarily on Air Force policy issues.

So earning a Master’s degree in environmental engineering through the distance-learning program at the Lyle School of Engineering was a natural fit. “The coursework goes hand in hand with my work as a bioenvironmental engineer,” Gifford says. “The courses deal with contaminates, the environment and regulations. Environmental engineering gets you out on site, doing assessments and making things better.”

Gifford also appreciates how receptive the Lyle School is to military students. “I did a lot of searching to find the right program that was fully accredited online and flexible. SMU was at the top of the list because it offered half-price tuition. I was assigned temporary duty in Florida and was able to get my coursework and submit it online.”

The Lyle School Distance Education Program began over 40 years ago with the Tager Satellite Network. Approximately 25 percent of applicants for the fall 2011 term are classified as military students, including active-duty, veterans and Department of Defense civilians. “Our faculty often are impressed with the caliber of experience that military students bring to the learning environment,” says Abigail Smith, assistant director for graduate military, distance and part-time on-campus education.

Military veterans and their families, as well as active-duty military, have long been important members of the SMU community, says Provost Paul Ludden. “They bring unique, global perspectives to the classroom and campus. We are proud that after serving our country, many are choosing to continue their education at SMU.”

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