Class members determined to smooth
veterans’ transition to college life © March 26, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

James Wallenstein, a participant in the Veteranís Communication Seminar, speaks to Norwichís top administrators about the need for a veteranís advocacy position in March of 2009.

photo by Jay EricsonJames Wallenstein, a participant in the Veterans Communication Seminar, speaks to Norwich’s top administrators about the need for an advocacy position in March 2009.

Patience and the right roommate were critical to senior Cindy Freudenthal’s successful return to college.

Midway through her freshman year at Norwich University, Freudenthal, a member of the Corps of Cadets and an Army Reservist, was called to duty. She spent the next 13 months serving in Iraq with a petroleum refueling team. When she returned to Norwich and the nursing program full time in the fall of 2007, things weren’t the same.

“It was really hard,” said Freudenthal. “It’s still hard even three years after being deployed.”

We want veterans to come to this school because the transition
is so easy.

~ Jesse Mattson,
Veteran’s Communication
Seminar member

As a veteran, she felt separated from other students who seemed less mature and naïve about the realities of deployment. Freudenthal struggled to handle loud noises. The cadets she had bonded with as a Rook had graduated to the privileges of junior year while she lagged behind. She had trouble locating other veterans who shared her experience.

“I probably saw them all the time, but I didn’t know who they were,” said Freudenthal.

Luckily, she was placed in a room with a third-year student who had been in the service and understood what she was going through. That, and time, helped Freudenthal re-acclimate to college life. Now, she and other students are helping veterans on the difficult transition from military to college life. A class, the Veterans Communications Seminar, is making Norwich a better place for people who have served, and its students are determined to create real change.

“We want to make Norwich, which is the oldest private military college in the U.S., veteran friendly,” said Jesse Mattson. “We want veterans to come to this school because the transition is so easy.”

Mattson, a fourth-year civilian communications major, kicked off a discussion with 10 students and several visitors, all arranged in a circle at one afternoon’s seminar meeting. It appeared, he said, that professors have final say in determining whether veterans receive full credit for a class if deployed in the middle of a semester. That policy needs to be changed, said Mattson. These students, many of whom recently left for Afghanistan, deserve a clear policy.

“They’re not opting out of school to go travel across the country and have a life experience,” said Mattson, “They’re going into battle.”

Mattson, working with fellow student Chance Gieni, first organized the seminar at the prompting of communications Prof. Bill Estill while working on a film about veterans called The War at Home. The trial course met with quick success. In March 2009, students—mostly veterans themselves—made a presentation before Norwich’s top administrators who approved their request to hire former Assistant Commandant Joyce Rivers as a full-time veterans advocate.

Rivers, now overseeing the Norwich Veterans’ Affairs Office, dropped by the class to discuss work-study jobs and academic-credit transfers. In addition, students were visited by a representative from the Veterans Administration’s Mobile Vet Center and the head of Norwich’s psychiatric counseling services. Seminar members discussed plans to set up the next lunchtime meeting for veterans, and the difficulties of communicating with this group. Veterans often live off campus or have simply never identified themselves.

One observer was John Bennett, a senior sports medicine student with eight years of naval service in Japan and California. Bennett, who is not a seminar member, volunteers at the Vets’ Office. He believes it is financially smart to make Norwich a comfortable place for veterans, and well in keeping with the school’s traditions. More importantly, this is a group with a unique set of circumstances. Vets are often older than other students, have families or may be suffering from emotional stress from combat experiences. Veterans often relate to the military lifestyle of the Corps, he said, but don’t wish to participate.

“We’re a group of people who don’t fit into the traditional norm of college,” said Bennett. “We are our own identity.”

He is excited by the energy for change, but worries students will become frustrated if things don’t happen right away. In many cases, he said, the right changes are very small. For example, his own decision to attend Norwich was almost jeopardized when he was told first-year students were not allowed to have cars.

“How do you tell a 27-year-old freshman who has been in the military that he can’t have a car?” said Bennett, who was eventually allowed to bring his vehicle.

Estill, who is working to establish the seminar as a permanent class, said the ultimate goal is a three-week orientation course that covers a scope of needs including housing, academic support and the simple chance to meet other veterans. The need for such a program was obvious at the first seminar, he said. Veterans who flocked to the course made it clear they were all struggling to acclimate in many ways.

“There was an isolation and a disconnection that was troubling,” said Estill.

Freudenthal agreed, saying she learned that finding the support of people who shared her experiences was critical to success.

“When you have those moments, you can talk to them and they understand, because they’ve been there.”