SSU Vice President Bucky Peterson shares his military background with Soe Hlaing and David ZengVice-president Bucky Peterson (left) shares his military background in the Marines with Soe Hlaing (middle) and David Zeng.

On Campus

From Battlefield to Campus

Two Iraqi war vets find their future in college

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They look like college students, although their backs are straighter and you get a sense of their discipline and steadfastness. David Zeng and Soe Hlaing, both students at Sonoma State, have experienced much more than the average student. The two are Marines who served in Kuwait and Iraq, both entering the service directly after high school. Each knew that once out of the Marines he would attend college. Zeng, a Amphibious Assault Vehicle mechanic and Hlaing, a supply adminisrator, served with combat units for four years, earning the GI Bill as do most service personnel. But the number of vets who actually make use of their GI Bill once home is only 50%.

One of the major reasons is the web of applications, paperwork and deadlines that are particularly complex for service personnel. Because of where they are stationed during application periods, they may take courses in many different states or countries.

Now, a California State University initiative first imagined by Bucky Peterson, Sonoma State University’s Vice President for Development, will make the transition from the military to college easier for students to maneuver. CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, a veteran himself, fully supported the idea and brought it to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor has championed the plan, now called Troops to College, and has fast-tracked the program.

David Zend in an anti-tank missile in IraqDavid Zeng, who is at Sonoma State, traveled in an anti-tank missle during his demployment to Iraq.

“Most veterans try to find out how to go from the service to college, but it’s too complex to work through the applications process so they give up. To have someone there to help would make a huge difference,” says Zeng. “Once service personnel get to college, they are very successful as students.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is partnering with the California State University, the University of California and the California Community Colleges to assist with transition from the military to school. The program will provide active duty and eligible veterans information, enrollment guidance and assistance. Working with 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 is working to ensure that military personnel are aware of all the advantages of enrolling in public colleges and universities.

“A lot of vets don’t take their SATs right out of high school because they know they are going into the military. But, when they get out of the service and want to start college, they don’t have the needed entrance exams. Or, for a lot of vets, they don’t think to apply a year ahead of time, which is required. We need guidance and someone to help sort through the requirements, dates, deadlines, all while we are often in a foreign country,” says Hlaing.

Soe Hlaing with a fellow marine in IraqSoe Hlaing, now an accounting major in his first semester at SSU, wih a fellow marine at one of their stops in Iraq.

Through the Montgomery GI Bill, service personnel pay $1,200 during the first year of service. Then, with a minimum of two years and an honorable discharge, the vet is entitled to benefits of up to $60,000 for four years of college.

“These veterans are some of California’s best students. They are all high school graduates and are physically and morally fit. They have demonstrated leadership abilities and experience and in many cases, they will become the leaders of our society, given the chance to earn their college degrees,” says Peterson, himself a Marine veteran and assigned by the governor as one of the leaders of the Troops to College initiative.

“We need these kids and they need us to help them transition back from military service into college life. Not only is this good for them, but we owe it to them. California will be the beneficiary. These vets will become teachers, politicians, business leaders. Troops to College is the right program at the right time.