Life's New Station
Student veterans find new professional paths—and support—at Temple.
Story by Jennifer Sweeney
While stationed at Camp Taji, just north of Baghdad, Montes Carrasquillo transported infantry in and out of Iraq’s border hot zones and manned an M120 mortar system on a Stryker Brigade Combat Team carrier. From 2008 to 2009, he served as a specialist in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment.
“One unique thing about this war is that the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform,” he explains, “so we were always assessing who was a friend and who was a foe.”
Currently a full-time film and media arts major in the School of Communications and Theater, Carrasquillo describes the Iraqi villages he has seen as looking “a lot like the sets of The Ten Commandments.
“Off the base, you had to know your surroundings, layouts of towns, members of families—when any of it changed, you had to notice.” His unit trained to focus on details contrary to everyday life in the region, like “seeing someone from a farming village wearing leather boots—definitely a red flag that things were not what they seemed.”
Between stints with the Army National Guard, Carrasquillo studied photography and photo-imaging at Community College of Philadelphia. Now, he applies the visual skills he honed in the field to his pursuit of a bachelor of arts degree in film and media arts, and toward a career in film editing and cinematography.
His functions as driver and mortarman required him to be physically active and constantly on the move, which he found far more appealing than working behind a desk. The process of studying film and media eased his transition to civilian life.
“The only time I spend inside is when I’m working in the editing room, if I can help it,” he says. Outside the classroom, his learning happens when he is working on film shoots. He also seeks fieldwork opportunities in locations that change from project to project.
By far, Carrasquillo is not the only student veteran learning to adjust to life outside the military: The returning and first-time student-veteran population has become the fastest-growing demographic at Temple. That population is likely representative of the population nationwide: By the end of 2011, approximately 50,000 U.S. troops had withdrawn from Iraq, and another 33,000 troops will return from Afghanistan by the end of summer 2012. Many veterans have already begun using their GI education benefits at institutions across the country.
Carrasquillo’s main motivation for earning his degree has been to set a high bar for his 14-year-old daughter by taking advantage of his veteran benefits to earn another degree.
“I want to be able to encourage and inspire her by saying, ‘I fought a war, came back, went to school and finished!’”
Temple aims to graduate as many student veterans as it accepts, but the road from GI Bill benefit entitlement certification to the classroom can be fraught with administrative pitfalls, legislation changes and rules that differ from state to state.
To help veterans avoid procedural roadblocks and smooth the transition from military to academic life, Temple founded the Veterans Task Force Committee in 2010.
The Veterans Task Force Committee is a collaborative initiative that comprises all key student services departments. Overseen by Vicki McGarvey, vice provost for University College, the committee includes Debbie Campbell, senior assistant dean in the Fox School of Business; William Parshall, executive director of Temple University Center City and extension services; John Bennett, director of the Office of Disability Resources and Services; and Laura Reddick, associate director for adult and student-veteran recruitment. They meet monthly to discuss new information, learn of benefit changes, organize social events and streamline administrative processes.
“Laura is a big help, always forwarding the newest information to me, checking in with me and helping me network,” Carrasquillo says. She has helped him garner work on various video projects, such as the online Temple Veterans testimonial video (available at temple.edu/veterans). “She also connected me with the Temple Veterans Association, where I’ll meet students this year.”
Founded in 2011 by economics and finance major and veteran Hyman Lee, Class of 2012, the Temple Veterans Association was organized to provide peer support and build community among the university’s student, faculty and staff veteran population.
And as a participant in the federal Yellow Ribbon Program, Temple works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to augment the maximum Post-9/11 GI Bill coverage—currently $17,500 per year. Temple—one of only six participating schools in the Philadelphia area—pays 50 percent of the gap between tuition and fees and what soldiers receive in Post-9/11 education benefits. Veterans Affairs then matches that payment.
Montes Carrasquillo served in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. Now, he is a film studies major in the School of Communications and Theater. Photo courtesy Ryan S. Brandenberg.
Ashley Grasty served in the U.S. Navy from 2006 to 2010. She currently studies human resource management in the Fox School of Business. Photo courtesy Joseph V. Labolito.
Because Temple’s tuition is relatively low, all undergraduate educational costs can be covered under those benefits. But helping student veterans is not just a matter of tuition. According to Veterans for Common Sense, which compiled data about veterans’ disabilities in 2011, nearly 50 percent of veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who are treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs are mental health patients.*
Additionally, 29 percent of those treated suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For those arriving at Temple with physical or mental health conditions, the Office of Disability Resources and Services offers help for soldiers who are suffering.
Ashley Grasty served in the U.S. Navy from May 2006 to April 2010, well over the requisite 36 months of active duty after Sept. 11, 2001. She was a logistics specialist stationed at U.S. Naval Base Guam aboard USS Frank Cable, a ship called a “tender,” on which submarine crews rely for replenishment of supplies and repairs. Managing the needs and requirements of submarine crews requires peak organizational skills and sharp time management.
“When there are 200 personnel together in close quarters,you get to see up close what good managers do, how their staff reacts and what makes other managers struggle to get cooperation,” she says. “There is a huge advantage to learning how to manage people properly.”
That experience complements her education at Temple, where she is working toward a bachelor of business administration, majoring in human resource management and planning to graduate with the Class of 2013.
She, too, received welcome guidance from the Veterans Task Force Committee—particularly Debbie Campbell. “She is a really good person to have on your side!” Grasty says. “Since the day we were introduced, she’s been making sure we are all taken care of and know we can contact her about any problems. She has been there for me 100 percent.”
At an event hosted by the task force, Grasty met Anthony Wagner, executive vice president for financial affairs, CFO and treasurer of Temple. It was a significant turning point for her, a moment when she realized that since serving in the Navy, she faces a host of professional opportunities.
“I was really inspired by Tony’s speech because we both chose the Navy,” she says. “We went through the same boot camp and have common military experiences, and he’s the chief financial officer of a major university. His story was so meaningful to hear, and very encouraging.” Due to her service qualifications, Grasty receives the full Post-9/11 benefit, which covers 100 percent of tuition and fees for full-time study, plus a housing allowance, and a stipend for books and supplies. In conjunction with the Yellow Ribbon Program, the Post-9/11 GI Bill can maximize the funds available, especially for in-state students considering graduate and doctoral programs.
For now, Grasty is concentrating on her undergraduate studies, but explains that just by having the option of the benefits provided by the Yellow Ribbon Program and Temple, graduate school has gone from being a financially unrealistic dream to a tangible possibility.
Brandon Porinchak, SED ’11, served in the Army National Guard from February 1997 to December 2007. While stationed at Camp Taji with the 28th Infantry Division, 28th Special Troops Battalion, he was responsible for providing infrastructure for voice and data communication in areas without feeding towers. His main goal was to “keep everybody talking and every unit connected.”
While in Iraq, Porinchak founded Operation Keystone Cares, a nationwide effort of U.S. families who donated clothing, school supplies and sports equipment to civilians living near the base.
“The outreach was great for building relationships with our neighbors and supporting needy communities,” he says. “You see kids with no shoes, wearing old clothing, and you want to help. It’s a worthwhile cause.”
In fall 2008, he joined the School of Environmental Design to study community planning and regional development with a focus on sustainable communities. As a nontraditional student pursuing a master of science degree with a family and a full-time career, he took advantage of being able to take classes in both Ambler and Harrisburg, as well as online via video conference.
His graduate school expenses were covered in part by his remaining Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, and a highly prestigious, two-year, paid Presidential Management Fellowship, which fast tracks outstanding graduate students into federal employment opportunities. Becoming a fellow meant that he had to be nominated by the university, an honor reserved only for top students.
Continuing his mission of advocacy for underrepresented populations, he took employment with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as project manager of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative—“an interagency urban revitalization program spearheaded by the White House and the Obama administration.
“I assist the public with public- or supportive-housing options for low-income families, and prevent singlefamily foreclosures,” he explains. Porinchak also is a member of the Federal Interagency Council for Workforce Development and Job Creation, and he supports HUD’s transparency efforts by managing Freedom of Information Act requests and making previously undisclosed government information readily available to the general public.
“Temple has been very good to me,” he says. “I want to give back."
Jennifer Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New Jersey.
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