Veterans take sense of duty into classroom


While most college students have long departed campus for summer jobs, beaches and bars, military veterans like Jason Sargent and Jayson Billstone are spending their summers in class determined to fast-track their education at Mercyhurst University.

Veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly are turning to higher education as they leave the military and confront an economy still reeling from the recession.

“These veterans see their degree as a goal that they want to achieve as soon as possible, so taking classes in the summer is a trend we are seeing on our campus and elsewhere across the country,” said Jay Breneman, veterans outreach and admissions coordinator at Mercyhurst.

In fact, 50 percent of student veterans who were enrolled at Mercyhurst last spring continued their studies over the summer (20 of 40), he noted. Also, the “new GI Bill” – the post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 – incentivizes veterans to go summers by making educational funds readily available.

Sargent, 25, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., is taking a graduate-level, six-credit human anatomy course while also working at the Barber National Institute. Ultimately, he wants to attend medical school and has earned 100 credits toward dual degrees in biology/neuroscience and Russian.

“In some ways, it is easier to go to school in the summer because there are fewer students around and it is easier to concentrate,” Sargent said. “But, in other ways, it’s difficult. Who wants to be in class when it is 75 degrees out and there’s a beach 15 minutes away?”

Sargent served in the Marines from 2006 to 2011 with duty stations in Japan, Sweden and Pakistan. The majority of his time was devoted to VIP and diplomatic security detail. It was in the Marines, he said, where he learned the discipline, drive and determination that had escaped him in high school.

“I didn’t take high school seriously or get good grades so I wasn’t sure how I’d perform in college,” said Sargent. While the average student veteran GPA at Mercyhurst is 3.2, Sargent maintains a 4.0.

Breneman, meanwhile, said most veterans come to college with a “get the job done” focus and, quite often, look at each year as a goalpost that they strive to reach. “For many,” he said, “graduation cannot come soon enough. This is not to say that they dislike school; on the contrary, it is because they feel so ready to move on to their next career that they are eager to succeed.”

For 27-year-old Jayson Billstone, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2005 to 2013, including overseas tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, that couldn’t be truer. Billstone expects to graduate in fall 2014 with a degree in intelligence studies and pursue a career in national security. So eager is he to get on with his life that he is juggling summer classes in statistics and Asian cultures, an internship with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and a part-time job at the Mercyhurst Rec Center.

“I’m managing,” said the Lander, Pa., native. “Actually, I’m getting better. I’m seeing progress. I didn’t have a goal when I first came to college, but the more I’ve been interacting with professors and people – especially this summer – the more I’ve developed confidence in myself and my direction in life.”

Despite their maturity, many veterans have trouble transitioning from the service to academia. Billstone returned from Afghanistan in April 2012 and started Mercyhurst a few months later.

“Not only was I trying to jump back into some sense of normality after getting out of deployment, but I was also trying to adjust to the culture shock of college life,” said Billstone who, like so many veterans, must work diligently to decompress from a war atmosphere marked by tension and stress.

Some don’t make it, but Breneman said Mercyhurst student veterans have program completion rates comparable to their civilian counterparts, and that his office goes a long way to make that happen.

“First, we recognize that our veterans are not broken or alien, and that they are indeed a diverse group of men and women,” Breneman said. “Clarity and availability of information and resources, consistent communication, a place at the table, and a positive spirit are our best tools for ensuring academic success and integration with the Mercyhurst community.”

PHOTO: Jayson Billstone





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