San Diego State extends welcome mat for veterans

Marine Lance Cpl. Elmer Ugarte, recuperating from being shot in the shoulder during a firefight in Iraq, is thinking of going to college once his active-duty service is finished.

“I made some history in Iraq,” the 22-year-old Ugarte laughed. “Now I think I’d like to study history.”

Ugarte was among a dozen Marines brought to San Diego State University last week for the kind of VIP treatment usually reserved for the star athletes the Aztecs are recruiting.

The Marines were told of various fields of study, including some in which their military service gives them an advantage, such as the new major in international security and conflict resolution.


A top administrator promised to guide their applications through the admissions and financial-aid process. They met with student leaders and with veterans who are already attending San Diego State.

The day was topped off with dinner, a greeting from the football homecoming queen and seats at the basketball game against Brigham Young University.

With the GI Bill to be enhanced this summer, campuses throughout the country are expecting more students from the more than 1.6 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In California, about 28,000 men and women a year muster out of active-duty service.

Officials at San Diego State, which is in the nation’s largest military community, are determined to make the campus a leader in attracting veterans and supporting their educational endeavors. A veterans center has been established and fundraising continues for scholarships (Wal-Mart contributed $100,000). There is talk of creating military-only housing along fraternity row.

If a veteran lacks the courses or grades for admission, his or her file will be reviewed by an administrator, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Once enrolled, veterans get priority in selecting classes.

Behind the push is a resolve that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans not be treated with the indifference -- or outright hostility -- that awaited veterans during the Vietnam War. One of those veterans was Jim Kitchen, now vice president for student affairs at San Diego State.

Kitchen remembers his alienation when he returned to college in the Midwest after serving in the Army in Vietnam. “I was very bitter,” Kitchen said. “We’re not going to let that happen to these veterans.”

Though San Diego State may be the most aggressive in its planning, other campuses in the California State University system are also involved under the governor’s Troops to College program.

Two years ago, Chancellor Charles Reed and the presidents of several campuses, including Stephen Weber from San Diego State, went to Camp Pendleton to watch Marines prepare for deployment.

The eggheads were impressed with the grunts, with the intellectual rigor of their training and the maturity shown by Marines no older than many undergraduates. Reed decided that admissions procedures had to be modified for veterans.

“Leadership is not something you can measure on a high-school transcript,” said Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs.

A deal was struck between California State University officials and military brass. Each year a total of 115 military personnel, selected by generals and admirals, will be guaranteed admission to one of the system’s campuses. Other veterans will have their applications evaluated separately from civilian applicants.

San Diego State, with more than 35,000 students, already enrolls 805 veterans, 65 reservists, 157 active-duty personnel and 139 military dependents. Those numbers are expected to rise when the new GI Bill takes effect Aug. 1.

Under the bill, depending on the length of the veteran’s service, he or she is eligible for a full ride on tuition and fees at a public college or university, which is about $3,000 at a California State University campus and $7,700 at UC Berkeley. Also, a veteran can receive up to $1,000 for books and supplies and a living stipend of up to about $1,450 a month.

But money is only part of the equation. Last July, San Diego State opened a veterans’ center, where veterans can inquire about financial issues or just relax.

The university, Weber said, is determined to “establish a culture of appreciation and support” for veterans. A study at San Diego State showed that veterans have a higher cumulative grade-point average and a lower dropout rate than non-veterans.

Nathaniel Donnelly, 32, a former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq, is assistant coordinator of the veterans’ center. He is also part of the Student Veterans Organization, which has 444 members. “We’re the guys that the veterans can talk to,” Donnelly said.

Peter Salas, 30, a former Marine and now president of the Student Veterans Organization, said the campus has come a long way since he enrolled in 2004.

“When I came back, I had all these things to share, but no one who wanted to listen,” said Salas, now a mathematics major on the verge of graduation.

Ugarte, trained as a machine-gunner, is not sure about his plans. He may extend his enlistment to redeploy with his unit, possibly to Afghanistan.

But if he decides on college, before or after Afghanistan, might he consider San Diego State?

“Yes,” he said, pausing briefly. “Make that, ‘Hell, yes.’ ”