Adapt and Overcome
by Glen Martin | Photos by Eric Millette
More than 368 students enrolled at SF State have served their country in the U.S. Armed Forces. Now the University’s Veterans Services program is here to serve them as they pursue their degrees.
A soldier's homecoming is seldom easy. Returning from active service to the home front, facing the prospect of unemployment and missing the companionship of brothers-and sisters-in-arms can be an exceedingly tough transition. The difficulties can be compounded for veterans who aspire to higher education.
To help these students, says Rogelio Manaois, SF State’s Veteran services coordinator, “we’ll do whatever it takes.” For Manaois and his staff of student-veteran assistants that means days filled with one-on-one counseling, phone calls and e-mails at the veteran’s services center, located in the Student Services Building.
“We help students with on-campus issues, such as VA educational benefits processing, financial aid, registration procedures, disability resources, counseling and psychological services,” says Manaois, himself a U.S. Army veteran. “We also serve as a liaison for off-campus services and facilities, including the county Veterans Service Office, the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the San Francisco Veterans Center.”
SF State’s student veterans are as diverse as any other group represented at American universities. According to Manaois, no more than 25 percent of returning vets have served in the Mideast, and of those, very few have seen combat. Also, of those who have seen hostile action, not all of them have been in Iraq or Afghanistan.
As Manaois observes, most student vets are acutely goal-oriented, and for some, it’s because life circumstances left them with limited options. Travis Groft is a case in point — he was a senior in high school when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.
“I couldn’t afford college, and nothing was available for me except manual labor,” he recalls. “Plus, I’d had some drug troubles, and I had gone through a rehabilitation program. I wanted some order and continuity, and I felt the service could provide that.”
Just days before he was scheduled to begin basic training in September 2001, Groft’s mother awoke him with news that a jet had struck the World Trade Center.
“She didn’t want me to go in,” he says, “and at that point I actually still had the option of backing out. But I felt I had made a commitment. I had a sense of obligation — of honor, and pride, too. I had to see it through.”
Groft spent seven years in the Air Force, much of it on bases in the Midwest. When he returned to the Bay Area in 2009, he used his veteran’s benefits to enroll in San Francisco City College, later transferring to SF state. Groft expects to earn his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology this year and is already working for a fitness technology firm on the Peninsula.
“It hasn’t been easy — it still isn’t easy,” he says. “I couldn’t have made it this far without my [veteran’s] benefits, the help I’ve received from SF State and the support of my fellow vets.”
Army veteran Stephanie Lugo Vazquez is another student who has welcomed the support of other veterans at SF State. The junior spends much of her free time in The Vets Corner, a lounge and study area in Burk Hall staffed by work-study students and volunteers from the local chapter of Student Veterans of America.
She describes it as a refuge, a place where she can talk with people who understand her. “It has really made my transition to civilian life easier,” she says.
For Vasquez, her service was a bridge to a college education, an option she didn’t consider during high school. “I didn’t feel confident enough to do it. It was the military that really helped build my self-confidence,” she says. But when Vasquez enrolled at SF State in 2012 shortly after her return from infantry service in Iraq, she found her wartime experiences set her apart from her student peers. At 24, she had aged out of life in the student residence halls and she found it difficult to make female friends. “I may not be able to have a normal college experience,” she says, “but being around all the veterans provides a sense of belonging and it has made my time at SF State more enjoyable.”
Virtually all student vets seem to share a sense of isolation from the larger student body, explains Manaois. “They’re usually a little older than the average student. They’ve seen more. They tend to be more serious, more mature — more focused. They don’t necessarily have a lot in common with undergrads who devote a lot of energy to socializing.”
SF State’s Veterans Services program helps bring student vets out of isolation, connecting them with their peers as well as the resources they need to earn their degrees. The efforts dovetail with the broader mission of the California State University system’s Troops to College Program, which allows active service members admittance to state universities based on recommendations from their individual military branches. Admissions deadlines are extended whenever possible, and both vets and active service members are given priority registration.
“These students are trying to be lawyers or engineers, or they’re trying to get MBAs,” says Manaois. “That’s their main issue, and everything we do in Veterans Services is directed to helping them realize their ambitions.”
John Sonza, the president of SF State’s Student Veterans Association, is among those who are well on their way to reaching their career goals. He was 15 when 9/11 occurred. Sonza couldn’t shake the image of the Twin Towers coming down.
“I knew then that I wanted to serve,” he recalls. After enlisting in the Army at 17, Sonza ultimately served six years of active duty and saw combat during two tours in Afghanistan and one tour in the southern Philippines. The transition from military to civilian life was challenging at first. “I had that alpha male mentality, that soldier, ‘hooah’ attitude,” Sonza says. “I got into arguments with my father. I had to slow it down.” For a while, he adds, “I felt a disconnect. Sometimes I despised our society for taking things for granted.”
The Vets Center has helped him adjust to campus life, providing academic advice and connecting him with fellow veterans who’ve shared similar experiences. “There’s camaraderie, and it’s very welcoming,” he says.
Today, Sonza’s life is full. The Vets Center played a large role in helping him land an internship with Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s office. An aspiring diplomat, he expects his degree in international relations in 2015.
Sonza still feels the call to serve. He remains in the National Guard and spends many of his weekends training young troopers in combat tactics. “I want to share my experience with the younger soldiers coming up, to do everything I can to make sure they’ll be okay,” Sonza says.
During his weekend training, he usually runs into another SF State student, Kang Young Kye. A desire to serve was also part of Kye’s motivation for joining the National Guard right out of high school in 2005. Military service was something of a family tradition: her brother was already in uniform when Kye signed up, and had been deployed to Afghanistan. She followed, serving as a logistics specialist in Kabul.
“I ended up serving six years in the National Guard,” says Kye, a junior. “Part of my motivation was getting money for college. But I also extended my enlistment so I could go to Afghanistan. I felt I had to go.”
While in Afghanistan, she met Anthony Rueda, a fellow Guardsman who had been assigned to transport, and who earlier had served a tour in Iraq. Their friendship deepened and led to marriage. Today, both are attending SF State on their GI benefits, living happily — if frugally — with their baby daughter.
“It’s a challenge,” says Kye. “The benefits are a tremendous help. We get an allowance that essentially covers our housing, and we had all our tuition covered. But the recent sequester cut our federal tuition assistance by half and that hurts.” And as Rueda, a senior, points out, just “adjusting back to regular life” can be challenging, whether it’s driving in everyday traffic or just being in large crowds. “You definitely appreciate things more,” he says.
He’s found it helpful to have a network of other vets to bounce ideas off of, people who are supportive and in the same position as his family. “Besides being able to relate to other veterans and having a lounge specifically for vets, Rogelio has been everything to my wife and me when it comes to all things administration,” Rueda says. “He has been counselor, registrar and overall mentor.”
Student-veteran Brian Bankston has welcomed the support at SF State as well. After two tours with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, he found he missed the camaraderie of the Corps — a particular sense of belonging that initially he wasn’t able to find on campus outside The Vets Center.
“You live in a tent with 15 guys, you spend days and nights patrolling in the cold and snow — well, it sucks, but it also creates a bond. To be honest, I had some difficulties with the transition [to campus life]. I didn’t really hang out with regular students until my senior year, and I still feel closest to other veterans. But The Vets Center really helped me out. They helped me get my full benefits, and they helped ground me. Now I have friends. I have a job. And I’ll get my MBA in the fall. Things are good.”
Sonza agrees with Bankston — and with all his fellow vets — that the service can create bonds “tighter than blood,” and that re-entry into the civilian world often translates into loneliness and alienation.
“But again, that’s where vets-helping-vets comes into play,” Sonza says, referring to the University’s Veterans Services program. “Also, your military training can be an asset. ‘Adapt and overcome’ — that’s one of the first things you learn in the service.”
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