Dung Mai, a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, had a hard time taking tests. He would know the material, but once he walked into class, his mind would go blank.
“I didn’t know if it was just me or was something else,” he said.
From 2005 through 2008, Mai served in the Navy. His deployments took him to Jordan, Bahrain, Spain, Turkey and Dubai. Upon returning, he entered Tarrant County College, where he received an associate’s degree. He did not recall noticing much in the way of veterans’ services there. “But I didn’t really ask,” he said.
After entering UT-Arlington, he was asked to participate in a study on veterans. That is how he met Hanli Liu, a bioengineering professor, and Alexa Smith-Osborne, an assistant professor in the social work school, who have teamed up in an effort to help veterans.
After that, things began to change for Mai, 24.
“That just opened up so much stuff for me,” he said. “They had just gotten started, so in a way it was a learning experience for them, but at the same time it was me trying to figure out what’s going on.”
After a decade of conflict in the Middle East, and with a boost from the expanded benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill passed by Congress in 2008, the enrollment of returning veterans in colleges and universities in Texas is increasing. Because of rising tuition and fees, the cost to the state of exemptions for veterans increased to $24 million in 2009 from $9 million in 2002.
Additionally, according to university officials across the state, it is a student population with needs and experiences that are not universally understood.
Smith-Osborne’s work is an example of an effort to get a better grasp on the situation. A self-described “army brat,” she is largely inspired by her time spent among the first wave of returning Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. At the time, she was making regular trips to the hospital with her father, a veteran who had Alzheimer’s disease.
Looking around, she said, “I decided I should be able to do something, to do some work that would assist this new group of soldiers and veterans.”
In addition to efforts to evaluate and carry out programs that provide veterans with free services — like counseling and assistance with financial aid applications — Smith-Osborne recently formed an interdisciplinary partnership with Liu, whose research has focused on a portable, optical brain-imaging device.
Drawing a comparison with the cumbersome and expensive magnetic resonance imaging process, Liu said, “If we can develop this technology, it could be used for veterans at relatively low cost.” They hope it will be a useful tool for diagnosing and monitoring the effectiveness of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as for pre-existing learning disorders that might impede veterans’ progress. In initial trials, the study has shown differences between the brain scans of veterans and non-veterans.
“No matter how much stress you put a human being under, sooner or later they’re going to be affected,” Smith-Osborne said.
She said she was not concerned whether difficulties like Mai’s were a result of their service. Her goal is to use the scan to develop strategies for improving academic achievement.
Timothy Denny, a 23-year Navy veteran and a business management student at U.T.-Arlington, said professors needed to be aware of veterans in their classes. There are experiences from his years of service that Denny said still affect him.
“There are things they might do, like somebody might slam a book down,” he said. “They have to be cognizant of what they might put up on the board and little things they do to get people’s attention that might actually freak out a student veteran.”
Smith-Osborne is the faculty adviser of the student veterans organization on campus. Denny, 43, is an officer, and they are trying to expand the group’s footprint. Because student veterans tend to be older and often employed, group organization can be difficult. And, Denny said, “there’s a lot of them that just don’t understand what we can help them with.”
He is not the only one who encounters difficulty finding student veterans. There is no statewide tracking system. Representatives of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that monitors the carrying out of relevant legislation, may push for one next session, possibly by adding a checkbox on college applications.
“We think it would be an important data point to begin tracking over the long term, not just in terms of understanding the trends of veterans, but it would also enable the state to conduct better outreach and push more services to veterans,” said Dominic Chavez, a coordinating board spokesman.
Many universities collect data, but because much of it relies on self-reporting, it is unlikely that the schools get the full picture. At U.T.-Arlington, veteran enrollment has increased by roughly 158 percent, to 1,369 in spring 2011 from the 531 in fall 2008. At Austin Community College, the numbers went to approximately 2,250 from 1,450 in the same period. The University of Houston currently has at least 1,247 veterans on campus. Texas Tech University reports similar numbers.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all flow chart of how an institution can support service members,” said Megan Krause, associate director of military programs at the American Council on Education, a national higher education research organization.
Peer-to-peer support among veterans is widely viewed as a key element of any effort to improve their success, Krause said.
“The catch here is that getting them in the door does not equal success,” she said. “Because of the post-9/11 GI Bill, they can now afford to walk through the door. However, there’s still three to four years they’ve got to get through.”
The council is creating a tool kit for its member institutions to evaluate their existing veterans programs and create others that might ease the “strikingly complicated” process of making the transition from active duty.
As for making veteran status a part of college applications, Krause said that needed to be handled carefully. “You certainly don’t want to give the impression that someone’s admission is going to be denied because they’re a veteran,” she said, adding that many veterans are worried about that, “so they won’t answer that question.”
Denny has thrived in the academic world. He will graduate in May, but he hopes someday to return and teach.
Mai, who is starting his senior year, months after agreeing to participate in the study, said: “I’m getting a lot better. So far, it’s worked out pretty good.”