Before Zach Deneen came to Southern, he attended University of California Los Angeles, but after two years in the art program he dropped out. He knew he wanted to return, but after working at a hotel for a few years, he remained unsure about what he wanted to pursue. It was then his father suggested he take a different path.
“I think I just didn’t have any direction in my life, to begin with,” says Deneen, 29. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know why I was in school.”
Deneen is one of 335 students here who have served in the military. Deneen is also part of the 73 percent of veteran students that are male nationwide. His siblings served in the military before him. His father suggested Deneen join the military in hopes that by the time he was done, he would know what he wanted to do, and he would be able finish his degree under the GI Bill, which helps veterans cover the cost of getting an education.
“It was a big transition going from living at home and doing whatever I wanted [to being in the military],” says Deneen. “I guess bootcamp was a pretty big shock.”
Deneen says he tried to prove to himself he could overcome any obstacle in his way during Navy bootcamp while he watched his colleagues quit. He went on to be a nuclear electronics technician in the Navy during the years 2012 to 2016 before coming to Southern in January 2019. Now a business major, Deneen says he plans on using his degree to become a financial adviser.
For Anders Martinez, 27, a sophomore who served in the Army, it took a while to find a sense of camaraderie on campus after eight years in the Army from 2010 to 2018.
“I went and hung out at the Veterans’ [Center] because I didn’t know anybody,” said Martinez. “I met one person, I told him that I wanted to join [Tau Kappa Epsilon], and last fall we rushed [Tau Kappa Epsilon] together, and we both got offers to join.”
Martinez also identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and hence found it difficult to be around other veterans who did not share the same political beliefs as him. Upon joining Tau Kappa Epsilon, he found sense of comradery amongst his fraternity brothers.
Martinez was a specialist in the Army spent six years and was stationed in Colorado and was later sent abroad to Egypt for a year. During his time in Colorado, he was also deployed to Afghanistan and worked as a supply clerk, mainly helping soldiers turn in equipment in order to shut down the bases. Martinez adds that he was not close to the combat, the closest he got was when a missile landed a few miles from the fence of his base.
“We would go out to smaller bases around where we were at and the units that were leaving—they were getting ready to go home,” said Martinez. “We would just take all of their equipment, turn it in and get rid of everything they had so we could shut that base down.”
Martinez spent the eight years of his service stationed in Tennessee, before coming to Southern in the fall of 2018.
According to Jack Mordente, coordinator of Veteran’s and Military Affairs at Southern, 85 percent of veteran college students are 24 years and older. He adds that these students may struggle with relating to younger students, balancing academic tasks with other requirements like supporting a family.
Being older than the traditional college student was frustrating at times for Martinez. He found some students to be immature for their age, but compared to his veteran colleagues, he had better experiences with younger students.
“This young generation, they pretty much do what they what they want,” said Martinez. “Most people understand that you’re paying to go to college, you’re paying for this education, you need to get your money’s worth.”
However, he said he wants to become a high school teacher and has thus grown tolerant to interacting within an age gap. He is also a math tutor in the Math Emporium, which, he adds, helps with gaining the necessary experience for interacting with students.
In a study published by Pew Research Center in September 2019, 73 percent of veterans said that adjusting to civilian life after military service was either somewhat or very easy.
Adjusting to college was not difficult for Timothy Levesque, 27, a sophomore who was a senior airman in the Air Force before coming to Southern.
“I think I understood better than most kids still,” said Levesque. “I mean, in the military, you’re still with kids aged 18 through 30-something, and 50 for higher ranking people. So, you’re never away from the same kid group.”
Senior and computer science major, Jeffery Dorwart, 58, served in the Coast Guard for over 30 years and says being much older affects the way he understands class material.
“It takes a little more effort to learn some of the material,” said Dorwart. “I have a number of disabilities that make it harder for me to move around sometimes and those play into getting to class on time and what I’m able to do at school.”
Dorwart credits the range of resources on campus for helping him stay on track in the classroom. He began serving in 1986 and became a lieutenant commander before retiring in 2016. Dowart now lives with his wife in the home they bought when he was stationed near Groton. He is also the father of three children, all of whom he raised with his wife during his time at the Coast Guard.
Dorwart commutes to Southern using public transportation and likes to spend time in the Veterans’ Center in order to connect with other veterans between classes. He hopes to start a business of his own in the technology sector after graduating.
“It’s nice to have people that kind of know where you came from,” Dorwart says. “It’s easy to find someone that you can talk to here that has a relationship to the background that you have from the service.”
This is also true for other veterans, like health science major Liam West, a junior, who is in the Marine Reserve after being an active duty member for a year and a half.
“I relate better to fellow veteran students than I do to other college students,” says West. “I’m 23 and in classes with some kids that are 18, and there’s a bit of an age gap. Having this place helps because I can be more of myself without having to worry or either offend someone or just not connecting [with younger students] because there’s a gap.”
Veterans’ Center offers assistance
The Veterans’ Center serves as a space for veterans to network and share common experiences. Mordente mentions that the benefits veterans have as a result of their service is discipline and a strong work ethic. Veterans have averaged a GPA of 3.2 as of the Spring 2019 semester.
“What really is neat about the veteran population is that they have matured, a lot of them know what they want to major in, they have great work skills,” said Mordente. “Professors like having veterans in their classes.”
The Veterans’ Center located in Engleman A014 is a space where veterans can get to know one another and complete coursework with a computer lab inside.
The Veterans’ Center also provides counsel, academic advising, as well as GI Bill and tuition waivers for veteran students. The center is run by Jack Mordente, the coordinator of Veteran’s and Military Affairs, who works with every veteran student to ensure their needs are met.
Mordente says that the GI Bill pays 100 percent of tuition and fees for active-duty members who served three or more years in the military. It also pays for the cost of books, not to exceed $1,000, as well as providing a monthly stipend.
“Day-to-day, I’m talking with them and ensuring their VA benefits processed, talking with them about how school’s going,” says Mordente. “I maintain a list-serve of all our military, and I communicate with them all the time about the different programs that we are doing, [and] reminding the services that we provide.”
A veteran himself, Mordente came to Southern in pursuit of his master’s degree in counseling in the summer of 1975 after serving in the Army for four years in the Medical Service Corps Office as a social worker and a few more years in the reserve. Shortly after his arrival, he started working with veterans under a federal grant that was awarded to the university. After the grant, he was hired to work full-time by Southern and has been here ever since.
“I really like what I do,” said Mordente “you know being a veteran, being able to relate to all of our military. I got a great job.”