College-graduate veterans share how they got it done

College-graduate veterans share how they got it done

by J.P. Lawrence
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — There were times when Brandi Cuevas, in the midst of juggling a career in the Army Reserves and a life as a student and mother, would bring her two young daughters to class or let them run around Sombrilla Plaza fountain at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“My girls knew how to traverse the campus better than many of the students,” Cuevas, 36, said.

There were also times when Cuevas wanted to throw in the towel on her education.

“I would sit in the corner of my house and cry,” she recalled. “Why did going to school, managing children, and being a soldier have to be so hard?”

Cuevas was one of four students who discussed the challenges of transitioning from military life to the academic world at the launch of the book “Adapt and Overcome: Essays of the Student Veteran Experience” at UTSA Wednesday.

Student veterans are a small but growing segment of the undergraduate student body. The Department of Veterans Affairs processed more than 4 million education claims for student veterans since 9/11. Of these student veterans, 51.7 percent have received a degree, compared to the graduation rate of 59 percent among their peers, according to a 2014 study by Student Veterans of America.

The study listed challenges such as failing to identify with their fellow students due to age differences and pausing their studies to serve overseas.

Jason Frazier, one of the veterans at the panel, said when he got out of the Marines and began college, he missed his old identity and had a hard time creating a new identity as a student.

“When I was in the Marines, I was a leader, a teacher, an avid exerciser, a role model and a great socializer,” Frazier wrote in “Adapt and Overcome.” “Within a month of getting out, “I had no job, one or two friends, and no one and nothing to teach.”

Frazier enrolled at UTSA, but he thought about re-enlisting constantly. In the Marines, he knew what he needed to do each day. Civilians by contrast acted “ambiguous, slow and lazy,” he said.

Frazier said he needed to learn how to slow down. It took him a year and a half to relax. “After much reflection, I realize now what I really craved then was support,” Frazier said.

Veterans can feel out of place on campus. Roughly 85 percent of veterans and active duty service members in colleges are 24 years and older, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

Air Force veteran Bonnie Drusky, 28, said when she entered college at 23, she was older than everyone else, and felt shy about interacting with anyone other than the professor. She would sit in the front of the class to create the feeling it was just her and the professor in the classroom. “It can be quite a challenge to relate to the normal freshman,” Drusky, who wound up hanging out with others with military experience.

Similarly, when Brian Houston, 30, began college after four years in the Navy, he was excited, but filled with anxiety. It wasn’t that he was afraid. Houston, 23 then, knew if called upon he could lead nine men on a ship. But the other students all seemed younger, and it had been years since he had done a math problem or read a book for fun.

Houston said his work suffered his first year of school, but he persisted. In 2015, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UTSA and is currently enrolled in a graduate program there.

“They act like we don’t know anything, and we might not know anything, but we’re motivated to learn,” the broad-shoulder Houston said Wednesday, “and we know how to work out, obviously.”

The Student Veterans of America determined veteran students were doing pretty well, accounting for the difficulties they face. About 62 percent of veterans and service members are the first in their family to attend college, according to the American Council on Education. Furthermore, nearly half of veteran students have children, and many veterans have credits scattered among multiple institutions due to constant moving.

When Brandi Cuevas applied to UTSA in the fall of 2007, her transcripts included attendance at four different institutions across three states, due to moving around for her husband’s military career. “My resume became a scattered mess of civilian jobs and undergraduate programs,” Cuevas said. She and her husband joked that she was on a “15-year graduation plan.”

Cuevas said one group, the UTSA Veterans Services Advisory Committee, helped her in her academic journey and with her benefits.

She said she studied in the small hours of the night as when her two girls slept. She said her professors were very accommodating. Once, while taking care of the children and with her husband on deployment, she said a professor extended the due date on a kinesiology midterm and let her bring her baby daughter, who was sick, with her as she took the exam.

In 2012, Cuevas graduated from UTSA with a dual degree in kinesiology and psychology. She received a graduate degree at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2014. Today she has a private practice on Blanco Road and her daughters are now 7 and 9 years old.

“It only took me 13 years, three mobilization tours for myself, one deployment for my husband, two dogs (fuzzy kids), and two more kids,” Cuevas wrote, “but I finally graduated.”

©2016 the San Antonio Express-News
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