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BY MARGARET LOFTUS
PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT ROHE
John Brasher

THE GOOD FIGHT

Returning veterans mean gains for engineering, new challenges for universities.


Growing up in rural East Tennessee, John Brasher had two aspirations: to be a soldier and to be an engineer. So it came as no surprise to family and friends when he enlisted in the Army shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. He later deployed to Kuwait with the 3rd Infantry Division, the first conventional unit to enter Iraq during the 2003 invasion. But for a guy whose idea of fun as a kid was damming the local creeks with twigs, fulfilling his second dream would have been trickier without the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

“My family comes from very modest means,” says Brasher, who held down three jobs and a full course load before getting approved for funding. Enacted in June 2008, the new GI Bill gave Brasher, 27, married, with a 4-year-old daughter, “the ability to survive.” He is currently enrolled at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., and will soon be pursuing a civil engineering degree at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Like Brasher, more than 200,000 other veterans have been approved to receive educational benefits under the substantially expanded bill for those who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. Some colleges and universities have already seen an influx of vets on campus, and anecdotal evidence suggests that interest in engineering is strong. Of 687 veterans who enrolled on the new bill last fall at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., for example, an estimated 30 to 40 percent are engineering students.

This trend is heartening news for a country suffering from a dearth of homegrown engineers, and a number of educators believe it could generate a boom of new workers. “We have these individuals who are technically trained and very well disciplined, and now here’s an inducer,” says Oktay Baysal, dean of ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering. But to reap the benefits of this pool of talent, universities need to find ways to assist student veterans. Baysal, for instance, is working with others on distance-learning courses and creating support networks of community colleges, government, and industry.

Ripe Conditions

Mark Shramm
Mark Shramm

Most schools aren’t yet seeing numbers like ODU, where engineering is already a popular major. But that may change as more troops leave the military looking to capitalize on their experience and training, 40 percent of which is technical. “You have a very large population of capable individuals – based on their post-high school exposure – that should have an interest in engineering and technology,” says David Huddleston, interim dean at Tennessee Technological University’s (TTU) College of Engineering. “It seems like the conditions are ripe for getting a good yield out of the group.”

U.S. Coast Guard veteran Mark Shramm, now a freshman in mechanical engineering technology at Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, agrees: “I definitely foresee a lot of individuals leaving the military for engineering fields.” When growing up, “I was always rebuilding motors,” says Shramm. “I was interested in mechanical solutions to everyday problems.” Uninspired by his high school education, he found a natural home for his problem-solving skills in the Guard’s engineering division. Today, under the post 9/11 GI Bill, Shramm is able to upgrade his skills and further his education.

Rod McGuire, now a mechanical engineering junior at the University of Louisville, credits his experience in explosive ordnance disposal in Iraq with pulling him toward engineering. What clinched his decision was learning about the invention of a medical device that can replicate a patient’s lung function, removing carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen. It’s something that could have saved the life of McGuire’s team leader, who succumbed to injuries sustained from an Iraqi improvised explosive device blast.

Rod McGuire
Rod McGuire

The bottom line is that troops returning home want to be employable, says Derek Blumke, president and founder of the Student Veterans of America (SVA), an organization with more than 200 chapters nationwide. “On active duty, you have a very unique skill set, so when you get out, you want to get a degree in something that’s very deliverable,” McGuire adds. “The majority of veterans don’t go for an art history degree; they go for something that’s going to get them a job. They know what they want.”

For many vets, that means engineering, a field in which their experience and technical skills can come to the fore. Yet some underestimate the disparity between technical training and the requirements of an engineering education. And that can lead to frustration. More schools are working to ease the application process, including waiving board exams or appointing an admissions officer dedicated to veterans. But vets complain that their military training is too often rejected for college credit. McGuire was granted only four credit hours from U of L after 10 years of military service; Shramm received none at Wentworth for his time with the Coast Guard. “You can’t ignore some of the training some of these people have gone through,” argues Blumke. “You have fully qualified Army medics sitting through the most basic Intro to Anatomy courses when they’ve been putting people back together in Iraq.”

Engineering educators come to the issue from a different angle, however, emphasizing the importance of highly structured and consecutive coursework, and the need to establish a foundational understanding of the discipline. “Typically, vets come off of active duty thinking their experience is going to fit better,” says Gene Clark, director of Veteran Enrollment Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Your average enlisted person hasn’t had the math prep to immediately jump into a calc-based model.” Finding the right course level for vets is “a very delicate balance,” he says. Ultimately, argues Phil Larson, transition specialist in the University of Michigan’s Office of New Student Programs, a conservative approach works in the veterans’ best interests. “We want to protect our students so they aren’t lost when they go into an upper course.”

Clark notes that engineering technology programs, which are “more algebraic,” are often a draw. Indeed, at ODU, technology disciplines are so popular that courses are offered on CD-ROM for those who can’t relocate to campus. Another attractive field is mechanical engineering, says Baysal, and, to a lesser extent, civil engineering. Officers tend to gravitate toward engineering management.

'Such a Disconnect’

Navigating the application process is merely the start for those making the transition from soldier to student. Adjusting to campus life surrounded by 18-year-olds can also be difficult. “You know where you fit in the military, but coming to a university is very different because you have to rediscover all that,” says Larson, himself a veteran. Blumke, who deployed three times to Afghanistan as an aircraft electrical systems technician, says younger students “have asked questions like ‘Did you kill anyone?’’’ It’s not like it was when vets come back from Vietnam, he says, “but there’s such a disconnect.”

Cracking the books again is also daunting. A straight-A student in high school, Brasher recalls struggling as a college freshman, staying up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to study calculus. “It was tough at first,” he says. “My brain had not thought that way in a long time. Now I’ve got Calc 3, and I’m fine.”

While former military personnel are used to self-discipline, schools have been slow to accommodate the physical and psychological wounds many have endured. The new law foots the bill for tutoring, but for psychological support, vets are directed off campus to their local VA medical centers. McGuire, who suffers from memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder, thinks more could be done for vets with learning difficulties. “I know it’s a new issue that universities are being faced with,” he says. “That’s why I’m working with the university to make things better for future students.”

Addressing these challenges and other special needs of veterans is part of the goal of a National Science Foundation (NSF) planning grant to Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. Dean Laura Steinberg and colleagues hope to develop custom education programming to better attract and retain veterans in the field. Mississippi State University’s School of Engineering has already developed a successful workforce training initiative for veterans in digital forensics. Its dean and ASEE Immediate Past President Sarah Rajala is heading up another NSF planning grant for a “boot camp” curriculum to offer the kinds of math and science many veterans lack.

In Tennessee, a consortium of universities, community colleges, government, and private industry is already having success in drawing more veterans, including John Brasher, into the engineering pipeline. The America’s Veterans to Tennessee Engineers program offers military service members part-time employment and matches them with engineering jobs when they graduate. Participants are required to attend one of two community colleges for at least one term to establish a technical foundation. So far, the program has guaranteed 30 students jobs with participating companies; the plan is to select 10 applicants every four months. “Even with the more generous GI Bill, we’re aware that there’s a need for additional support systems, and we’re going to develop them,” says Huddleston of TTU, one of the participating universities. “You served the country, you deserve our help.”


Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Boston.

 

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