As veterans head home from Iraq and Afghanistan, most are seeking jobs and education. Unfortunately, Michigan vets receive the lowest federal veterans benefits per capita in the nation and we have the lowest rate of GI Bill usage of all states. Fortunately, organizations like Northwestern Michigan College are stepping up. Today is Part Two of our series on local veterans.
Michigan veterans face an 11.2% unemployment rate—3% higher than the rate for other Michiganders and the fourth highest for vets nationally.
So under the expanded “post-9/11” GI Bill, about 2 million veterans, reservists, and their family members are giving college a try. GI Bill benefits vary by branch, rank, length of service, and geography, and sorting out what you’re entitled to is a frustrating process for vets and for the schools scrambling for those federal dollars. The dropout rate among vets is 88%.
At Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), such a failure rate is not an option.
As of this fall, NMC is among just 63% of colleges with a dedicated student-veterans support office, housed within Outreach Services (OS). They’re aggressively recruiting vets for culinary arts, nursing, business, and the Maritime Academy. At press time, NMC had 177 student veterans and 30 nonveteran students studying on the GI Bill, with 20 more signed on for January.
Among them is Kyle Book of Cedar, who spent 15 months in Iraq with the 136th Infantry. Kyle is 20 percent disabled with PTSD, and by FFA regulations can’t pursue his first choice, aviation school. He credits OS assistant director Scott Herzberg with helping him reset his sights to renewable energy, electrical, and HVAC.
“I won’t settle for anything less than the best student veteran program in the country,” says Herzberg, who took on that mission in September. OS helps student vets deal with a long checklist of tasks toward completing their degree, from applying for admission to securing VA benefits and other financial aid, to chasing down disability payments or finding a tutor. OS director Jim Bensley also cites students’ need for help adjusting to a “much less regimented” learning environment.
Raised in Lake Ann, 25 year-old Sarah Bean spent time in Goodwill veterans housing as a single mother after her tour in Iraq. She works at Fox Grand Traverse, driving a delivery truck like she did in the Red Zone. When she decided to go back to school, Bean says she didn’t know where to start.
“I felt like people were having me make phone calls in circles so I would get discouraged and give up.” With Herzberg’s encouragement, she found she qualified for 80 percent of tuition and fees and a housing allowance of $800 a month. Added to a Pell Grant, that will allow her to pursue a degree in social work.
Sarah and Kyle both wonder if their benefits will show up before classes start, but they’re not worried. Herzberg has received board approval to provide no-interest loans to veterans.
"We know the money's coming eventually." The college also waives its application fee for vets.
Herzberg wants Outreach Services to provide more than just logistical support. This year on Veterans Day, he organized a Walk of Honor that brought together faculty, local veterans, students, the TC Central marching band, VFW Cherryland Post #2780, and the Coast Guard. A chapter of the Student Veterans Association will hold its first meeting in January, with the aim of “veterans taking care of veterans.” A blood drive is planned for April.
If you’re a veteran and you’re ready to go back to school, Sarah and Kyle have some advice for you: “Don’t give up. The benefits are there and it’s what you deserve.”