Veterans adjust to life on new terrain

Emory recruits students with military backgrounds

Chris Weakley disarmed bombs during his 12-year U.S. Army career, but he had doubts about his ability to excel as a student at Emory University.

Weakley, 33, took a chance and enrolled at the university earlier this year.

To date, his biggest challenge has been battling with bouts of perfectionism. It’s hard for Weakley to accept getting any grade less than an A.

Emory leaders began an effort about two years ago to enroll more military veterans. This fall, there are about 90 of them, mostly in graduate programs, said Giles Eady, the university’s associate dean of admissions. Emory has about 15,000 students, the largest enrollment of any private university in Georgia.

Here and elsewhere, veterans have difficulty adjusting to life on college campuses. In the military, they were accustomed to the constant camaraderie of men and women through shared experiences of intense training or combat. On campus, they’re surrounded by students — mostly younger, often from wealthier families — whose limited knowledge of military life comes from movie stereotypes. The transition, the vets say, can be lonely.

The Emory veterans, though, are finding their way through new friendships, campus counseling services or 6 a.m. workouts.

Weakley is taking acting classes, hangs out with fellow vets and mentors younger students.

“I’m trying to find my own spot, my own little niche to fit in,” Weakley said before a recent class.

Emory’s recruitment efforts

On Monday, Emory University, like many places across America, will have a ceremony to commemorate Veterans Day. The ceremony is meant to celebrate the heroics of the vets, but it’s also part of an effort to make students who’ve served feel more comfortable on campus.

About 5% of college students nationwide are veterans, federal statistics show. There’s been a surge in veterans going to college since Congress passed legislation in 2008 giving greater educational benefits to veterans on active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of returning veterans on college campuses grew from 500,000 to 1 million, according to some news accounts.

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Much of the national conversation concerning education for veterans has focused on them pursuing, and failing to get, degrees from for-profit schools. Several for-profits, including some with centers in Georgia, have abruptly closed in recent years, and many veterans were unable to recoup their tuition. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson from Georgia is also working to make sure veterans who were totally and permanently disabled automatically have their student loan debts erased.

In Georgia, several colleges and universities have welcomed students considering or pursuing military careers, some for more than a century. Georgia Military College, which has campuses throughout the state, was founded in 1879 and has a U.S. Army Senior ROTC program with about 250 students. The University of North Georgia’s Senior Military College has received several awards for its work. Saint Leo University, which has three educational centers in Georgia, was recently ranked by Military Times as having the best online and nontraditional program for veterans.

Emory is trying to find its spot in this space.

The current effort at Emory began during the 2014-15 school year when the university invested about $1 million in financial aid to veterans. It continued in September 2016 when Claire Sterk became the university’s president; she wanted to recruit more veterans. Her husband, Kirk W. Elifson, is a U.S. Army veteran and was a captain in combat intelligence in Vietnam, according to his Emory biography.

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Nestled between wealthy neighborhoods such as Buckhead and Druid Hills, Emory is nothing like the chaotic battlefields of Afghanistan. It's not like most university campuses, with its white, marble-like building exteriors and a new student dining hall that offers gluten-free options. Emory, founded in 1836, has never had a football team.

The presence of the veterans is an adjustment for students and for Sterk. The Netherlands native laughed about an encounter with some of Emory’s ROTC members near her home on campus.

“I had a scare,” Sterk said several months ago during an interview. “I was going for a run one day when all these people with weapons were running by. They said, ‘Oh, we’re doing training.’ ”

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Sterk said the university’s efforts to recruit veterans have come “organically.” There are card signing events on campus for vets. The university offers counseling services, which have been important for many veterans still dealing with the emotional scars of life in war zones. The business school has a program to provide internships for graduating veterans. Faculty are eager to help the vets.

Eady, who is African American, recruits veterans at community colleges nationwide and at the Pentagon. His interest in helping veterans is personal.

“I have family members that have served in the military since the Spanish-American War. They often were denied benefits (because of their race) when they returned home from war, and my service to veterans helps to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Eady said. “I have to pay homage to them.”

The most important recruiting tool for Emory is its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which offers money to offset tuition. Weakley said the program, along with his GI Bill, has allowed him to pay Emory’s tuition, $53,070 this school year.

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Many veterans are reluctant to apply to institutions with strong academic reputations or high tuitions, research shows. Only 1 in 10 veterans using GI Bill benefits enrolls in institutions with graduation rates above 70%, according to a January report by Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research organization. Emory’s six-year graduation rate is 89%.

Veterans at Emory say one need is pre-admissions counseling. Once they arrive, research shows they excel in the classroom. The Ithaka S+R report found student veterans have higher average grade-point averages (3.34) in comparison to traditional students (2.94), and graduate from college at higher rates.

Still, the biggest adjustment for many students is believing they belong, said Tyler Freeman, an Emory student who is a former Marine and now president of the university’s veterans association.

Veterans typically learn they do belong here when they discuss their military careers with other students. There’s something about hearing a veteran’s story about piloting a helicopter or Weakley discuss defusing a bomb that fascinates fellow students.

“The way we are impressed with them, they are impressed with us,” said Freeman, 29, who is pursuing an MBA and a law school degree.

‘Am I good enough?’

For Jihea Song, the adjustment from military life to Emory student begins at 6 a.m. Three days a week, she arrives at a ROTC facility near her Buckhead home for physical training.

Twenty situps. Run a lap around the track. Twenty pushups. Run a lap around the track. Do it again.

Song, 22, is midway through her first semester at Emory. She was born in Japan, but her parents moved to Richmond, Virginia, when she was 16. Unable to afford college, she joined the U.S. Army and became a combat medic in South Korea.

Song came to Emory through the Army’s Green to Gold Active Duty Option program, which puts soldiers through college as part of a career development program to groom them for careers as officers. Song, who is majoring in international studies, hopes to work in military intelligence upon graduation. She’s also thinking, someday, about a career in the private sector.

A petite young woman with long, dark hair, Song thought carefully before answering questions during a recent interview. She apologized for restarting her reply, saying she was nervous. She had just completed a midterm exam.

Song ends her sentences with “sir” or “ma’am” and uses military time in text messages. The Army is in her, even without the uniform. She said she wasn’t initially comfortable with being on campus. She had to figure out how to find an apartment and get car insurance on her own.

“I kind of missed that Army culture,” Song said.

She, too, wondered if she belonged academically. It had been three years since she left high school, and Song had to learn how to study again.

“Am I good enough to study here?” she asked herself.

Classmates who learn about Song’s background had questions.

What is your rank? What was it like?

“I answer them candidly,” she said.

After a month on campus, Song said she adjusted. Song created a routine. Workouts, classes, library. Do it again.

Classmates willingly helped her prepare for exams. So have faculty.

She’s made friends by playing the keyboard in a band.

“I feel like I’m a student here,” Song said.

Embracing the differences

Quand on veut, on peut.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” Weakley’s French professor interpreted the phrase on a screen in her classroom.

Weakley took notes quickly as the other students stared at the professor as she conjugated verbs. He slowly joined his 14 classmates in reciting the words.

Weakley said he may have an opportunity to use some of what he’s learning in the French class. He’s a finalist for an internship at a French bank in New York City.

Emory has opened new opportunities for him.

“I now have something to show for the hard work,” Weakley, a finance major, said in a hallway outside before the class.

Weakley knows he’s different than most classmates. Some students weren’t born when 9/11 took place. He fought the war on terror. One student in his French class has pink streaks in her hair. Weakley has touches of gray in his dark hair. He embraces the differences, urging younger students to take Emory seriously.

“I try to steer them in the right direction,” Weakley said.

The mentoring is part of Weakley’s own transition to college life.

Weakley was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during his Army days. He suffered a shoulder injury and went to Washington, D.C., to serve as an intelligence analyst. One assignment was alongside then-President Barack Obama.

Weakley took courses a couple of years ago at George Mason University in Virginia. He applied to Emory, in part, to be closer to his ill stepfather in Jacksonville. He was also intrigued by Emory’s film production courses.

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Weakley likes acting and is part of an acting group that meets twice a week. He credits acting with helping him cope with suppressed emotions. He recalled his breakthrough moment. He had to act out a scene of solving a Rubik’s Cube or his dog would be put down. Anger. Sadness. It all came out, he said, in that scene.

“It’s helped me to open up a little bit,” Weakley said of acting.

Acting and campus counseling services helped Weakley last semester when a close friend was killed in Afghanistan.

Weakley’s military background emerges in his approach to everyday life. He arrives to classes early. He mapped out each of his classes on campus to make sure he didn’t get lost.

Weakley said most of his friends are former vets in Emory’s graduate schools. Through the new bonds with people who have shared ties, Weakley said he feels like an Emory student.

“It’s made me feel at home.”


Here are some services Emory University offers veterans:

  • Psychological and neurological services for those with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • A clinic to assist them with legal issues, including claims for service-connected disability.
  • Treatment programs that integrate behavioral health care, rehabilitative medicine, wellness, nutrition, mindfulness training, and family support.