Governor's initiative encourages troops to pursue higher education

By: ALEXANDRA DeLUCA - For the North County Times

When Nathaniel Donnelly was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps after 8 1/2 years of service, he was unsure of his future.

Donnelly, 29, is a former sergeant who spent six months in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division during the initial 2003 invasion. After a brief, unsuccessful stint selling real estate, he decided to enroll at San Diego State University in 2004 because the school offered a major in international security and conflict resolution. Set to graduate in 2008, Donnelly now has his sights set on a career in the CIA.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he would like more veterans to follow Donnelly's lead. In March, the governor created the California Veterans Education Opportunity Partnership, also known as Troops to College.

The goal of the initiative is to encourage veterans to attend California's public higher education institutions, which include the 10 campuses of the University of California, the 23 California State University campuses and the 109 California community colleges.

The initiative is a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of the Secretary of Education, the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and military branches within the state.

Troops to College spokesman Paul Browning said the newly created task force plans to make veterans aware of the educational opportunities available to them at California's public colleges and universities through job fairs, public service announcements and a tour of military bases.

Browning said California's public higher learning institutions offer opportunities to veterans that the vocational schools do not.

"We think that we have some relatively unique benefits," said Browning, who said California's public colleges and universities allow veterans to study different subjects and get a wide-ranging education rather than focusing on one field of study or trade.

"If you don't know exactly what you want to do, you can explore," said Browning.

Browning also said the diversity of the students who attend California's public higher education institutions is unmatched.

"You meet a variety of different types of people," said Browning. "You get that interaction. It's great transitional therapy."

Although only about 4,000 of the 600,000 students at University of California and California State University campuses are former military personnel attending on Montgomery GI Bill benefits, Browning said the campuses are very veteran-friendly.

"They get a lot of support here," said Browning. "We want them to know that they don't have to feel intimidated. Most campuses have specially designated counselors to help veterans (with the) transition, and more and more military clubs are developing on campuses."

Donnelly is in the process of forming one such club, the Student Veterans Organization of San Diego State. Donnelly, who also works in SDSU's Veterans Affairs office, said one of the main goals of the club, which he hopes to expand to other campuses throughout the state, is to help veterans take advantage of all of the educational benefits they are entitled to through the GI Bill and other programs.

"A lot of people don't realize what they're able to get," said Donnelly, who said he believes the often confusing process of applying for benefits "probably discourages most veterans" from applying to colleges and universities.

Donnelly said the club will also counsel veterans on matters such as how to navigate the age gap between veterans and other students, most of whom enroll in college immediately following high school, and will provide a supportive environment in which veterans can share their experiences.

"It will be a fellowship," said Donnelly.

Donnelly said he believes he has benefited from attending college after serving in the military, because the self-discipline he learned in the Marines has helped him focus on his studies.

"The schoolwork is definitely easier," said Donnelly. "I don't have nearly as much trouble as other students."

Donnelly said he also believes that, unlike students who enroll in college right after high school and lack real-world experience, it is easier for veterans to see the relevance and practical application in their studies.

"You've got all that experience," said Donnelly, who said he does not think it is a coincidence that most of the veterans he knows at SDSU have extremely high grade-point averages.

Browning said he hopes Troops to College will help other veterans follow in Donnelly's footsteps.

"We just want them to know we're out here and we can help them along the way," he said.