- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. | For veterans looking to continue their education, the College of William & Mary can be the academic equivalent of shock and awe.

The college is a highly competitive school that traditional students can find challenging. Now take veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who are accustomed to a regimented military life. Plunk them down in a world where they must learn new study habits, navigate a different bureaucracy and sit next to classmates who consider 8 a.m. classes to be the crack of dawn.

Oh-eight-hundred the crack of dawn? Seriously?

Enter the Veterans Society of William & Mary.

Formed in January 2007, the group is dedicated to helping student-veterans adjust academically and socially to a new life. It is a small group now - about a dozen members - but it is likely to grow as the new “Post-9/11” GI Bill sends thousands of veterans swarming to campus.

“You’ve been away from the school environment and you’re trying to adjust to it,” said society president Jeremy Stout of Chesterfield County. “And this is a very difficult school. It’s almost culture shock when it comes right down to it.”

Mr. Stout wasn’t long out of high school before he entered the Marines. He spent his first tour of duty in Haditha, Iraq. His second tour was in Fallujah. Now 23, he thinks of himself as much older than the 18- to 22-year-olds who make up most of the student body.

Imagine how Kaitlin Burke feels at the ripe age of 25. She served in the Navy for five years, including a stint aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Ross. Now she commutes to school from Virginia Beach. “The Veterans Society is awesome because it has people who can relate to me,” she said. “The population at William & Mary tends to be a little bit younger. Most of them are coming out of high school.”

This sounds familiar to David Aday, a professor of sociology and American studies and the society’s faculty adviser. A veteran himself, he is curious how student-veterans are mixing socially with the traditional students who have different experiences.

Many veterans have deployed overseas, and many William & Mary students have lived or traveled in foreign countries. But that’s not the same.

The traditional students who travel abroad “have a worldview that is just very different from what you get after a couple of tours in Iraq,” he said.

Mr. Aday said he understands the unique academic pressures that the veterans face.

The student-veterans at William & Mary didn’t go through high school with an eye toward spending four years on the Williamsburg campus. Mr. Stout didn’t have the best grades and attended John Tyler Community College to boost his academic resume before transferring.

Mr. Aday said this is part of the adjustment process. “Given that they have not been on that direct track to a highly competitive college experience, they’ve got a fairly significant shock to encounter,” he said.

Mr. Stout acknowledged the challenge but said he’s confident. He’s majoring in psychology.

“I have taken a couple of tests and had a gut check,” he said. “It’s a learning experience. I’m adjusting to it fine. I have no doubt in my mind.”

Mr. Aday credits a former student, Lance Zaal, as the force behind the society’s creation. Mr. Zaal has graduated, but the seed that was planted is expected to grow. And its role is already changing from a social and support network to a group reaching beyond campus.

Mr. Aday said Mr. Stout brings a new type of leadership to the group as it continues to grow.

“Jeremy understands there are veterans on campus, in the community, and even homeless veterans who can benefit from the society bringing people together,” he said.

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