By Doug Boyd
A typical day for first-year medical student Bryan Morales starts early, goes late and packs a lot in between.
But for him, that's no problem. He's used to challenges-such as wrapping up battle field wounds and jumping out of airplanes.
So is Ashley Bonner. Like a lot of students in their final semester before graduation, she takes a few classes-even teaches one-then heads for her internship at a local therapeutic horseback-riding farm. There, she works with veterans who, like herself, need some time and a friendly horse to help get back into the civilian world.
Bonner and Morales are part of relatively small but significant group of East Carolina University students who are also veterans. Compared to students who entered ECU right out of high school, they have a little different perspective on the world. After all, they've served their country by working-and sometimes fighting-in other countries. They've helped and healed, and now they're building futures where they will help, heal and lead others.
Navy veteran Nicole Jablonski, director of ECU's Student Veteran Services, says student veterans have a lot to offer because they arrive on campus globally aware, disciplined and have leadership skills. Part of the university's strategic plan is to be the top university in North Carolina for active military and veterans, and ECU is working to make itself an educational destination for them.
"These are highly transferable skills, and we want to make sure our students hit the ground running when they start at ECU," Jablonski says. She wants the broader university community to see "how we can leverage their amazing skill sets on campus."
A 'military-friendly' school
In the past couple of years, ECU has been named among the "best for vets"-and top school in North Carolina-by
Military Times and as a "military-friendly school" by Victory Media.
ECU has approximately 1,400 military-affiliated students enrolled this fall, according to university figures. That total comprises active duty, veterans, dependents and ROTC students. In the past two years, the UNC system has seen a 13 percent jump in the number of people using military education benefits. This fall, those students numbered more than 6,000, according to system numbers.
"Recent national studies have proven that veteran students graduate at higher rates and with better GPAs than average traditional students at universities nationally," says Joe Wescott, a veteran and executive director of the North Carolina State Approving Agency, which is responsible for approving educational and training programs for the GI Bill. "These students often show up on campus with a greater degree of maturity and are usually focused on their education and its importance to a successful career."
"Eleven of North Carolina's 16 public universities have opened campus veterans centers, all in the past three years. And most now have at least one full-time staff member to assist veterans in making the transition to campus life.
"Many of them have served multiple tours in war zones abroad and return with those experiences and memories and then enter a university setting that doesn't have the same kind of disciplined, unit-building structures, which can be a different kind of challenge compared to those faced at war," says Anna Froula, associate professor of film studies and faculty advisor of the Pirate Veterans Organization.
She says ECU's veterans center, which opened last year in Brewster, is a vital ingredient in making the campus a good place for veterans to learn.
Alumna smooths path for student-veterans
For student-veterans making the transition from military to campus life, the details can be daunting. That's where Kim Treece '94 '00 comes in. Treece serves as the VetSuccess on Campus counselor and helps students navigate programs and services, benefits, referrals and many other topics as they pursue degrees and plan their futures.
"Having a face—a person—attached to the VA is helpful because it's such a huge machine," Treece says. "I've had students say, 'You've made this easier for me.'"
ECU is the first North Carolina institution of higher education to house a VSOC counselor provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Treece is the second to hold the position since its creation in 2013.
In addition to helping veterans make use of education and VA benefits, Treece works with them on vocational assessments and counseling, survivor and dependents assistance, referrals to health services and references to community organizations that may help them adjust to civilian life, among other duties. She is there to help student-veterans combine the military lifestyle they were accustomed to with life as a student and a future professional.
Treece's background as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the VA and with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune helps her understand the issues that veterans face in their lives.
"They can come in here and immediately start talking to me about these things, and I can identify with what they're dealing with," she says. "I can help identify transferable skills that they acquired in the military. Sometimes they have a hard time figuring out where they fit."
For Rachel Brokaw, Treece helped ease the adjustment to becoming an ECU student. Brokaw served 10 years in the Marine Corps and is now a junior majoring in social work.
"It was a completely different lifestyle from going to work every day as a Marine to now a full-time student," she says.
Treece was there to help her navigate everything from buying textbooks to understanding benefits and connecting with fellow student-veterans.
"There have been times where she helped proofread essays for applications and review résumés," Brokaw says. "There have been times where I was ready to stop and give up but she never would let me. She will do anything she can to ensure that people graduate and move on to be successful members of society."
“Studies cite veteran centers as being one of the most important aspect of a military-friendly institution for many reasons, including being a secure location where veterans can be with other veterans and study, rest, or simply have a few minutes to recuperate if they’re going through a tough time or having a bad day,” she says.
Bonner can relate. Born in Alabama, Bonner has called Greenville home most of her life. At age 22, she enlisted in the Air Force, went through basic training in Texas, did clinical training to become a medic at Andrews Air Force Base in Virginia and then was assigned to Seymour Johnson AFB near Goldsboro. She’s deployed to Turkey, Guam and Paraguay.
“I had always wanted to be in the military,” Bonner says. “I was lucky to have the freedom as an American, so I wanted to give back and thank my country for that.”
She left the Air Force in 2012, took courses at Pitt Community College, then enrolled at ECU in spring 2015. She’d learned about the university studies program and felt it fit her perfectly.
“That’s when I realized I could write my degree,” she says. She devised a degree program that will qualify her to work with veterans who are having post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues and help ease them back into a manageable lifestyle.
“I wasn’t done with my military lifestyle,” she says.
Morales grew up in a military family and saw the service as his best ticket out of a low-wage future and into one that could help others.
“It’s just being raised in that environment and that culture you just want put to a lot of work and a lot of focus to helping others,” says Morales, 33.
Morales served as a rifleman in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005, assigned to the Third Battalion, Third Marines and First Battalion, Third Marines. He was stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and served one tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq. He was honorably discharged as a corporal.
After taking some nursing classes, he decided to re-enlist. On a visit to a recruiting center, a Navy recruiter wouldn’t pay him much mind, but an Army recruiter did.
“He asked me if I wanted to jump out of a plane. I said, ‘Sure.’” So from 2007 to 2010, Morales served in a parachute infantry regiment at the famed 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. He was an airborne medic, served one tour in Baghdad and was honorably discharged as a sergeant.
Once out, he enrolled in Methodist College with an eye on becoming a physician assistant. But a professor motivated him to do more. So he applied to the Brody School of Medicine and not only was accepted but also received a Brody Scholarship, the school’s most prestigious.
Morales is interested in specializing in internal medicine and psychiatry and perhaps sub-specializing in emergency medicine.
As an undergraduate, he assisted with research into post-traumatic stress disorder. That experience makes him want to use his medical degree to return to military service work with veterans. He also wants to serve the Latino population.
He’s part of a first-year class in which approximately a tenth of its 80 students are veterans—including one from a European nation’s military and another whose wife is an Air Force physician. The percentage at most medical schools is in the single digits, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“It seems ECU is an extremely veterans-friendly school,” Morales says. “ECU definitely looks at you as a whole person.” In addition, he says, having a VA health center within sight of the Brody Medical Sciences Building and major military installations in the region are pluses, too.
Bonner says what veterans experience as students isn’t all that different from what other students experience, but how they view it often is.
“Our age for one thing. We’re older, we have more life experiences. We have more responsibilities as an adult,” she says. “College in general is kind of geared toward traditional students.”
Froula, the granddaughter of a WWII veteran, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the cousin of an Iraq veteran, agrees.
“Not all (underclassmen) have a game plan in place for succeeding in coursework and preparing for life beyond college,” she says. “Not all have decided on a career path.
“In comparison, our student-veterans come to the university with the kinds of life experiences and life skills students typically don’t acquire from high school. They’ve had time to mature and develop more discipline and focus and arrive ready to apply it to their education and career path.”
Studies and service
On Wednesdays, Bonner teaches a section of COAD 1000 for veterans. In one class in September, she relates her own difficulty transitioning out of the military—a transition that wasn't exactly on her terms.
"I was...crazy," she says. "I wanted to fight everybody. "That's how she made her way to the Rocking Horse Ranch outside Greenville and its therapeutic riding program. She learned horses can sense a rider's anxiety and become anxious themselves. Thus, riders must learn to manage their emotions.
Now, as an intern, she relates those lessons to other veterans dealing with difficult transitions. And she continues working through her own by riding and even mowing pastures.
"I love it," she says. "I do a lot of thinking on my tractor."
On the other hand, first-year medical students such as Morales have packed academic schedules. There are basic science classes, an introductory "doctoring" class, anatomy labs and preceptor rounds with physicians in clinical settings.
"Medical school is extremely tough, a lot tougher than I imagined. But that goal (of helping others) is what drives us forward," he says. "If (he's studying) at 12 at night, I'll keep moving forward with that motivation and energy."
Froula's experience with student-veterans and their motivation to succeed is similar.
"I've had one student veteran that I know of—before I started working with the Pirate veterans," she says. "Before I knew he was a veteran, I was impressed by his discussion points and his poise. He really seemed to be there to learn and was engaged with the ideas and concepts all semester."
Bonner says sometimes she can pick out other veterans on campus due to their posture or how they carry themselves. They have life experiences most other students never will. They're used to overcoming adversity and have resiliency younger students might lack.
Morales agrees. "As veterans who have been in service for a while, you get molded into a certain attitude or outlook," he says.
For him and Bonner—and many other student veterans—that attitude is breeding success.
Former Marine recruits troops, vets to ECU
When Marine veteran Jeff Netznik '80 '02 was returning from his service in Vietnam, he was ordered to wear civilian clothes on his flight back to the States. But once at Camp Lejeune, he decided to take a class taught by an ECU professor.
"The faculty members used to drive down and sell books out of the trunk of their car," says Netznik, who's now associate director for military outreach in the Office of Continuing Studies. So he filled out a half- page form, paid $30 and got his book. "That was my first experience with ECU."
Nearly surrounded by military installations, ECU is embracing its opportunity to be the school for active-duty service members as well as veterans.
"The Department of Defense is looking for degrees that will lead the service member to be a productive, more useful leader for the services and transition outside," he says. "They're looking for a degree program that provides the individual with a future."
At ECU, Netznik says, faculty members are trained in what to look for in their student- veterans and how to help them find resources-and that, in turn, helps the university.
"The service members do well in the classroom, but they need help getting into the curriculum,"
he says. "Then they bring the success on themselves.
"It's serving those that served," he says. "One good alumnus is better than 25 billboards across the state."
"The military outreach program is very helpful," says Valerie Burgo '10, who advises veterans and service members at Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville. She is the daughter of a former Marine who wound up in Jacksonville and, like many from the bases that surround Pitt County, chose ECU since it was close by.
"Many peers do migrate to ECU," she says. "We're about, what, and hour and twenty minutes?"
Programs aim at active-duty troops, civilians
In addition to on-campus programs aimed at veterans, ECU is also working to meet the distance-education needs of active-duty troops and civilians who work for the military.
Through its new Active Military Personnel University Program, or AMP-UP, which ECU plans to start in March, the university plans to offer accelerated courses online.
"At ECU, we realize the schedules of the military population are varied, and traditional educational opportunities may not always be an option," says Sharon Kibbe, director of the program in the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Success. Thus, the AMP-UP program is a flexible seven-and-a-half-week online format for undergraduate courses meeting foundation curriculum requirements.
"The 7.5-week-term courses will allow active-duty service personnel more flexibility to begin and complete a full undergraduate degree at ECU," Kibbe says. "The online and condensed format of AMP-UP courses can enable service members to complete courses throughout the year whether they are at home, away at training or even when deployed as long as they have access to reliable Internet services."
The primary target for the program will be active duty personnel within the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and U.S. Coast Guard Tuition Assistance Programs.
Meanwhile, in the College of Education, for nearly 10 years the Army has paid for General Services Administration employees and some active duty personnel to enroll in a master's-level distance-education program to learn how to train military personnel on new technology.
ECU admits about 20 people a year to the 36-hour program in adult higher education principles and instructional technology. The coursework is equivalent to a master's degree in education.
"The goals were to provide the Army with training sufficient to launch a career in adult and continuing education, human resources development, and training," says Vivian Mott, professor and interim associate dean of the College of Education.
She and Steve Duncan, the former head of military programs at ECU, worked with the Army to assemble the program. Steve Schmidt, a professor in the college, is now the program coordinator and has published articles and spoken at conferences about the program.