AUBURN – Brett Mixon isn’t kidding when he says, “there’s just not much I have in common with the typical 18-year-old coming out of high school.”
A little more than a year ago, Mixon was a U.S. Marine infantryman patrolling the streets in and around Fallujah, Iraq, and searching for improvised explosive devices. These days, he’s an Auburn University undergraduate and a member of a rapidly-growing student population.
University administrators across the nation expect to see more military veterans on their campuses, thanks to a revised and more generous GI Bill that went into effect in 2009 as well as an influx of men and women returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have approximately 250 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at Auburn right now, but we expect up to 300 in this fall,” said David DiRamio, assistant professor of higher education administration in the College of Education and co-author of the book “Creating a Veteran-Friendly Campus: Strategies for Transition and Success.”
DiRamio has followed through with the title of his book by helping Auburn create a Veterans Learning Community. In addition to assisting student-veterans, the learning community offers a research opportunity for DiRamio by allowing him to gain insight into their learning habits and academic and social needs. Open to students who have fulfilled their service obligations or are active duty or National Guard, the learning community will help 20 to 25 students make the transition from the military to a university setting beginning in fall 2010. The group will take multiple courses together, including English composition, world history, music appreciation and principles of microeconomics.
“No matter our age, how long we served, or even prior education before our military careers, we all could use a little kick-start to get back into the swing of things in college,” said Ben Manzano, a social science education major from Birmingham who served a four-year, 10-month tour with the 11th Marine Regiment in Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province. “The hardest part of the transition from military to college life is just becoming accustomed to being completely in control of your own life again.”
Manzano and Mixon took a pilot course – “Success Strategies for Veterans” – taught by DiRamio in fall 2009. The course, which will be offered to members of the learning community, deepens student-veterans’ understanding of the learning process and the role higher education plays in shaping their lives. DiRamio said the learning community will help the students fine-tune critical thinking and study skills while also enabling them to build teamwork.
“One of the most critical factors is peer support,” DiRamio said. “We’re just the guides in this process. They’re the ones who are going to make it work.”
While DiRamio said the vast majority of the veterans he’s encountered are good students, the learning community can provide a supportive environment for those who have special needs. A few deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or have difficulty concentrating on lecturers because military training conditioned them to be on a constant state of alert.
“These services have been available to them, but they might not have availed themselves of them without the support of the community,” DiRamio said.
Mixon said the Veterans Learning Community adds to Auburn’s proud legacy as a place where veterans feel welcomed and encouraged to excel.
“It’s very promising to see that Auburn is carrying on her tradition of being veteran-friendly,” said Mixon, a business finance major from Clarkesville, Ga. “I strongly believe that veterans are great students because the discipline that is learned in the military helps them in the classroom. They may struggle at first, as I did, but they’ll be determined to learn and won’t let their troubles stand in the way of their mission, which is graduation.”
(Written by Troy Johnson.)