April 2009 | Home
What happens to students' values when the economy tanks?
Jim Abbott became one of U-M's best and most beloved athletes, despite playing with only one hand.
Most emailed stories
- Exactly how much housework does a husband create?
- U-M Heritage: How to date women, circa 1943
- U-M top U.S. public university in World University Rankings
What does it mean when newspapers no longer publish on paper, and books aren't made on presses?
Detroit's troubled auto industry has done more than build vehicles. It's also come up with a trunk-load of car names.
Michigan is trying to turn itself into a mecca for moviemakers. So far it seems to be working.
An online magazine for alumni and friends of U-M.
The battle at home
Veterans face unique struggles when they enter the university. But a group of U-M vets have worked hard to help U-M help its own.
April 14, 2009
Halfway through his first semester at the U-M, Branden DeRoche had a secret. He'd completed a four-year stint in the Marines just months before school started, including two deployments in Iraq. But he'd told almost no one about his service. "If I was in the middle of a conversation with somebody, I'd avoid mentioning certain things if it meant I'd have to explain that I was in the military," he says. "It was actually kind of a problem. I was just so tired of, like, holding it in me."
According to DeRoche, many U-M veterans share his reticence. "It could be that we feel that the people around here don't like the military," he says. "Or it could be that we're just trying to avoid those kinds of stupid questions that we've heard over and over again—like 'Have you seen combat?' or 'Have you killed anybody?' Regardless of the answer, we don't want to talk about it. It's like people who ask those questions don't genuinely care about veterans. If you have an answer, you're satisfying their own personal curiosity so they can talk about it with their friends later in the day." He sighs. "It's real hard to connect to people—they don't understand what we've been through."
DeRoche's dilemma is becoming increasingly common on campuses like Michigan's. With two ongoing wars and increased education benefits under the 2008 GI Bill, more and more veterans are going to college after their service. But when they get there, many find themselves struggling with the transition from military to college life. As U-M veteran Derek Blumke describes it, "Student veterans have trouble with everything from being a little older and having different experiences than most students, to their school's administration not being fully supportive in changing programs or policies. Most universities are just not prepared for veterans."
For Blumke, a senior who served in Afghanistan, the culture shock began right after he arrived at Michigan. "I was sitting in class my first semester here, talking to this girl," he says. "She was probably 19 or 20, and I must've looked a little older, so she asked, 'How old are you?' I said, '26,' and she looked confused, like she was waiting for an explanation. So I said, 'Oh, I was in the military for about six years.' And she was like, 'You were in the military? Why would you do that?' It was just beyond the scope of her understanding why somebody would join the military—period."
Were you a student-veteran? What was your experience at U-M? Tell your story here.
To help his fellow veterans find a more sympathetic ear on campus, Blumke founded the Student Veterans Association at Michigan in the spring of 2007. He took the group national the following January, teaming up with the veteran's association at Columbia University to co-found the Student Veterans of America. As president of the organization, Blumke has helped it establish chapters in over 90 universities. But though the group's first goal is to provide social support for veterans, the Michigan chapter has tackled a bigger challenge: making the U-M more veteran-friendly from the top down.
In April of 2007, Blumke and other group members approached university administrators with a list of requests, ranging from an on-campus veterans' resource office to a website to provide vets with information about the university. "Initially, there was a little apprehension, because they didn't understand the needs of veterans on campus," he recalls. "But after that initial phase, they've been incredibly supportive. They've really worked hard, and they've done a lot of great things."
Just months after hearing student veterans' concerns, the university created the U-M Veteran's Connection website, with information on everything from financial aid to services for students with disabilities. More significantly, it created the Veterans' Assistance Program within the Office of New Student Programs. The program is headed by Phil Larson, a veteran of the first Gulf War. "At a big university like Michigan, you call one department and they transfer you to another department, who transfers you to another," he says. "Coming from a military environment that's pretty structured, veterans find that very hard to navigate. So my job is to be the single go-to person that military folks can call to get their needs met."
As Larson describes it, sometimes those needs are more emotional than logistical. "One student vet told me, 'You know, I have a person sitting next to me who's stressed out about an exam, or about not getting into a sorority. And two months ago I was in Iraq. How do I relate to that, and how do they relate to me?'" But though the Veterans' Assistance Program organizes campus events to raise student awareness of veterans' experiences, Larson counsels veterans themselves to take the initiative in reaching out to their peers. "It's great that student vets have the support of being with other veterans," he says. "But if they only hang out with other veterans, I think they'll lose something by not interacting with students who have vastly different experiences than they do."
Last November, Branden DeRoche took that advice and finally opened up to his classmates about his military background. He did it in dramatic fashion: on Veterans' Day, he came to class wearing his camouflage fatigues. "I decided to get it over with," he says with a laugh. "I'd been here for a couple months, it was Veteran's Day, so I was like, 'You know what, people can know that I'm a veteran now, whatever. I used to wear this thing every day for four years, so it shouldn't be a big deal.'"
Even so, he says he felt a little nervous when he walked into his first class. "I got mixed reactions. Some people talked to me and asked questions, and others just kind of ignored it. I definitely got a little more curiosity. But I also found that people were more intimidated, and they didn't really want to talk to me! But it's all good. I remember when I was 18 years old too, so I can't really blame them."
"We know that people don't know exactly how to talk to us," he continues. "A lot of times we'll get comments like, 'Awww, you went to Iraq? Oh, I'm so sorry.' You don't need to apologize or be extremely grateful or anything! We're not looking for people's sympathy. But I would say, if you're interested in asking some questions to a veteran, just show that you genuinely care. Start with simple questions, like 'What was your job?' or 'Where were you stationed?' We may not want to talk about everything with other students. But we can share our experiences, to kind of help them understand the world better. We have experiences they can learn from."