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From Combat Boots to Books: The Challenge of Soldiers Returning to the Classroom


Monica Darcy
“According to a national survey, 88 percent of student veterans drop out in their first year of college and only 3 percent graduate,” said Monica Darcy, RIC associate professor of education and faculty liaison for RIC’s Veterans Resource Center.

In spite of these low figures, the graduation rate for Rhode Island College veterans is five times higher than the national average. What is RIC doing right and what can the nation’s colleges do better?

A panel discussion – ”Student Veterans at RIC: Boots to Books” – was held at Rhode Island College to explore the challenges vets face in transitioning from a military environment to an academic one, and the policies that need to be in place to increase retention.

Leading the discussion were Micaela Black Estrella, a VA employee and coordinator of RIC’s VetSuccess on Campus; Keri Rossi D’enremont, director of RIC’s Disability Services Center; Jennifer Cook, associate professor of English, and two RIC student veterans – Anthony Passarelli and Holly Witheral.

Passarelli said he believes that financial constraints play a large part in the student veteran dropout rate. While Cook cited combat-related disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) that affect student performance. ”There is a need,” she said, ”for faculty to structure their courses with the experiences of veterans in mind.”

“At the same time, don’t assume all student veterans deal with PTSD or TBI,” said Darcy. “Only 20 percent of veterans suffer from these symptoms.”

Most important, faculty and student veterans should know where resources are on campus if they need assistance with anything from academic accommodation to help with VA benefits.

“The current draw-down in troop forces is going to mean that the already large influx of student veterans is going to continue to increase,” said Darcy. ”More and more veterans and their family members, to whom many of them can transfer their benefits, will be enrolling in college. We have to be ready to accommodate them.”

RIC was recently ranked among the top Military Friendly Schools in the nation by G.I. Jobs magazine.