When Dan Frontera enrolled in graduate school at the University at Buffalo, he found himself yelling at two fellow students, one reeking of alcohol, who browsed Facebook instead of listening to the lecture.
During Frank Grillo’s first week at Daemen College, he stormed out of class after hearing two young women complain about getting mud on their Ugg boots and remembering his boots being “completely covered in blood.”
And Matt Ziemendorf usually counts how many people are in the room and identifies all the exits as he enters classrooms at Niagara University.
These young men are a different type of college student.
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 rebounding from recession. They’re often older than other students, and frequently have spouses and children. They’re not interested in partying, and many try to finish their degrees as quickly as possible.
Some also struggle with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Right now, area campuses are largely quiet, as many college students have headed for beaches, bars and summer jobs. But military veterans are more likely to eschew summer vacation for more coursework in an effort to graduate sooner.
At UB, for instance, 34 percent of the enrolled veterans take summer classes, compared with 24 percent of the entire student body, according to a university spokesman.
“The only people that we really noticed on campus during the summer was either the veterans and athletes,” Ziemendorf said about Niagara.
Ziemendorf, who served in the Army for six years and deployed to Iraq twice, is one of the 64 veterans at Niagara and the thousands at Western New York colleges and universities. He’s taking five classes this summer, he said, only because school administrators wouldn’t let him take six.
The population of veterans varies at area schools, according to administrators. At UB, the 94 veterans enrolled last spring made up less than 1 percent of the student body. Canisius College has 97 veterans as part of a significantly smaller student population – just over 3,300 undergraduates and 1,700 postgraduates.
There are far more veterans at SUNY Buffalo State and Erie Community College, both of which enroll more than 800 such students, or about 6 percent of their student bodies.
Veterans are generally more respectful of professors and more focused on their work than many other students, said Andrew Overfield, coordinator of veterans services at Canisius. Administrators at other local colleges agreed. That discipline, Overfield said, helps veterans finish school as fast as they can.
“Things like shutting your cellphone off and not text-messaging, and doing all that, it’s just common practice in the service,” said Richard Gipple, a criminal-justice student at Buffalo State who did two tours in Iraq and one in North Africa.
“Because in a staff meeting or a commander’s call, you really get pointed out.”
But veterans, despite their maturity, often have trouble with the transition from the service to academia. Many grapple with the loss of the military’s strict routine.
“The thing I struggled with for the longest time was, you no longer have your senior NCOs and stuff like that giving you orders,” Ziemendorf said, referring to noncommissioned officers. “You’re kind of figuring this out on your own.”
That’s where people such as Overfield come in. Each local college has a staff dedicated to helping student veterans deal with anything from course registration to managing benefits through the federal government’s “new GI Bill” – the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008.
The law was passed to extend tuition benefits of up to $12,293 per term to veterans at public or private schools in New York, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans must have served at least three years after Sept. 10, 2001, to be eligible for full benefits.
Lesser amounts are available for veterans who served for less than three years, and for those students, D’Youville College gives a 50 percent tuition discount, said Ed Draper, assistant director for veterans affairs at the school. Full tuition there costs $22,480 plus $370 in fees.
“If you went to boot camp and you went through training, or you’re on active duty or serving in the Reserve, then, in our eyes, you’re a veteran,” Draper said. “You’ve served our country.”
Other schools offer their own benefits. Canisius, for example, covers the cost of a veteran’s books, Overfield said, while he or she waits for GI Bill money to come from the government, which can often take awhile.
Niagara has a veterans lounge that is only accessible to student veterans via swipe card.
“It’s a lot quieter in here,” Ziemendorf said as he sat in the lounge, which is in St. Vincent’s Hall. “So you don’t have to go to the library and study with people who are being loud and disruptive.” Canisius and D’Youville have similar lounges, according to Overfield and Draper.
Overfield, Draper and many of their counterparts at other area colleges are veterans themselves, which helps them relate to the student veterans. And often, they are also students, as well.
Jason Gilliland at Buffalo State and Frontera, who’s now the veterans affairs coordinator at ECC, are both pursuing master’s degrees in the higher education field at Buffalo State, so as they help students navigate the transition from deployment to academia, they are going through the same thing.
“That’s the reason he was hired,” Margaret Shaw-Burnett, Buffalo State’s associate vice president for academic affairs, said of Gilliland. “Because he had that background.”
Being a veteran himself, Gilliland can understand a veteran with PTSD “hitting the deck” upon hearing construction noises on campus, and can point him to a place where he can get help.
And being a student himself, Frontera can understand what it’s like to be surrounded by younger college students who are nothing like you.
“Who I had become in Iraq and who I had been in the military didn’t fit well with civilian life at that point,” Frontera said, describing a period from 2006 to 2011 when he was fired from three separate jobs. “And that didn’t work in school, either.”
Similarly, Grillo’s attempt to become a paramedic after his three tours in Iraq as a combat medic ended because of his PTSD.
“I found it very difficult to focus in the back of an ambulance, with everything else running through my head,” Grillo said.
He described responding to the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003 and “spending the better portion of 10 hours trying to pull people out of the concrete slabs.”
“You’re looking at the horror of mankind,” Grillo said.
He said that Daemen is a much better place for him than an ambulance but that the memories of the war still affect his life. He sometimes wakes up at night and checks his windows and doors, even though he lives in a safe South Buffalo neighborhood. And sometimes, the issues trickle into class, such as when he heard the women talking about their Ugg boots.
“I was furious, at no fault of their own,” Grillo said of the incident. “This is what girls talk about. But I was furious. And I just got up and walked out of the class.”
Grillo hopes the degree he’s pursuing at Daemen will allow him to open his own business one day, so he can support his wife. Ziemendorf hopes to go into federal law enforcement so he can provide for his wife and baby daughter.
Othaman Rafeek, an Air Force veteran at ECC, wants to work in human resources so his three boys can go to college one day. And Rafeek said his hard work in class can show his oldest son, 13, the importance of education as he begins ascending the academic ladder.
It’s the combination of the fear of flunking and losing GI Bill funds, the demands of family life and the discipline instilled by the military that causes veterans to treat college as if it were a job.
“I know the first time I went to school, I didn’t take it seriously,” Grillo said – he took classes at SUNY Fredonia State and Long Island University before his military career. “I partied too hard, I went out, I drank as much as I could. But this time around, it’s a lot more serious, and you’re a lot more mission-focused. “There’s a task in front of you, and you’re going to accomplish it. And that’s what we do.”