NYC Veterans Hit the Books

Like their peers nationwide, New York City veterans often transition from battlefield to the classroom. But furthering their education can be a battle for them as well.

T he transition from military service to the classroom is a primary mission for many veterans who have returned to New York City from Iraq and Afghanistan. Updates to the GI Bill and the drawdown in Iraq contributed to increased veteran enrollment in college as they acquire new degrees and find their place in the workforce. According to the most recent data available from the Department of Education, over 760,000 veterans were enrolled in college or graduate degree programs in 2011. It’s not always easy.

Veterans “don’t understand civilian jargon the same way you don’t understand military jargon,” said Mike Abrams, an Afghanistan veteran, about the cultural gap that separates those who served from those who didn’t.

Abrams, 32, studied education at SUNY Cortland and worked several part-time jobs before his 2004 deployment to Afghanistan. He finished his active duty as an artillery officer in the States and feels lucky that he didn’t transition “straight from Kabul to the classroom.” He recently graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in finance and entrepreneurship. In an effort to assist veterans, Abrams launched Four Block, an organization that provides résumé workshops, internship placements and networking events.

“Veterans do have a place, but getting there is the hard part,” said Won Paulisol, 28, a Marine veteran who served in Japan and now works with Abrams.

According to Stephen Clark, the director of CUNY’s Office of Veteran Affairs, over 3,000 veterans are currently enrolled at CUNY—a 55 percent increase since 2009. He says the services provided by Four Block are necessary, but many skills acquired overseas can be helpful, too.

“Some of the transferable skills that are learned in the military are exposure to other cultures, a cultural awareness,” said Clark. “Veterans have had security clearance, which transfers to paramilitary jobs.”

For Sharmistha Mohapatra, her 2008 deployment to Afghanistan taught her about project management, public speaking and training others. She and her army team designed courses in plumbing, contracting and carpentry to train Afghani civilians who might otherwise join the opposition.

“I’ve just gained general professionalism,” said Mohapatra, who studied public health as an undergraduate. “As far as things I’ve missed out on, it was the time spent outside my field of study.”

When Mohapatra started the job search, she realized her credentials weren’t enough for her to break into the education field. The Maryland native moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia’s Teachers College. She used the GI Bill—a law that distributes benefits to veterans—for financial assistance.

Last year, New York City veterans received just over $148 million in education and employment benefits—over one-third of the amount given to the entire state. According to Jason Chakot, a senior training technician at the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, the money helps veterans stay financially stable while in school.

“If someone gets out of the army as a military police officer and then works at a police station, they have most of the certifications but not everything,” said Chakot. “The GI Bill pays them some money until they become officially certified.”

The Bill started as the Servicemen’s Adjustment Act of 1944 to provide veterans with low-cost mortgages, business and education loans as World War II neared its end. But the new Basic Allowance for Housing provision pays a stipend based on geographic location, giving New York City’s veterans more aid than veterans in other locations.

“With the old GI Bill I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” said a New York City-based veteran who requested anonymity as he searches for a job. “For anyone to go to school in the five boroughs, they are pretty much set.”

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