June 27, 2008

Back to School: A Veteran Goes from Iraq to College

By Amanda Martinez
New America Media

CHICAGO – Marine Veteran Rodrigo Garcia is boarding a plane from his hometown of Chicago. But this time he isn’t going to Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait – three of the countries he has been since he signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000. He is flying to New York, where he will begin training for his new position as a wealth manager for Morgan Stanley.

Garcia began reading books about personal finance during his deployment in the Middle East. He even made it his hobby to advise his comrades on everything from credit reports and fixed-rate mortgages to stocks and bonds.

As a child Garcia was always interested in money and how it works.

“I grew up on welfare and food stamps,” says Garcia. “I remember feeling grateful that my high school had a dress code because no one noticed I only owned three pairs of pants those four years.” When he graduated from high school in June 2000, he says his options were limited.

“I could either continue my usual jobs at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Pizza Hut, or go into the service.” Even though he wanted to go to college eventually, Garcia didn’t feel comfortable accepting his father’s offer to put a second mortgage on his house in order to pay the tuition.

After talking many times with an army recruiter he met on his high school campus, Garcia felt confident that the service would give him the structure and financial means to get to college. He signed a five-year contract with the Marine Corps the same month as his high school graduation.

Serving the Country

“I loved the Marine Corps and the things it provided me: discipline, responsibility, leadership, motivation, and self-drive,” Garcia says. He had many small victories in the service that would leave him wanting the same accolades in school. While on duty, he tried taking classes but was constantly forced to drop out due to deployments – a typical setback for service men and women because colleges are not required to adjust contracts due to deployment.

On New Year’s Day of 2005, during an extended shift guarding a tower in the desert, he decided it was time to leave the Marines. “I was looking out into the desert and realized I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I found myself saying out loud the advice I had received years before from a high school counselor: ‘You should do something you enjoy.’” Garcia completed the last year of his contract, declined a $25,000 incentive to re-enlist, and went back home in the hopes of studying finance.

Back To School

Back home at age 23, Garcia found that schools were not prepared for veterans, and – the biggest surprise of all – that the current G.I. Bill didn’t cover his educational expenses.

Walking onto campus on the first day of school was like entering another battle zone. His first month at Northeastern University was the hardest. “We [veterans] walk, dress, and talk differently than everyone else. I just wanted to fit in but I felt very isolated, like I was in a cocoon.”

When he went to a school counselor for advice he became disheartened. “They asked me if I had killed anyone. After that I decided never to go back.” Afraid of getting similar responses from his classmates, he stopped telling people that he was a veteran.

But Garcia’s biggest challenge was navigating the financial aid hurdles. Because the G.I. Bill at the time didn’t cover educational expenses, he was forced to look for other avenues. Luckily, Illinois is one of two states that has a unique veteran education grant.

In 2007 Garcia helped start a Student Veterans Club at his school to help other returning veterans deal with the financial and social stresses that he faced. As president of the club he gave workshops on federal and state benefits that could help pay for school. The club became one of the founding members of The Student Veterans of America (SVA) - an organization, which started in January 2008 with 11 chapters, now has 200 chapters throughout the country.

The G.I. Bill

The current G.I. Bill, which is dependent on a $1,200 buy-in at the beginning of a soldier’s service, does little to consider the rising costs of college tuition or regional costs of living and requires that veterans pay for college fees up front. “They have enough hardships at home without adding education expenses. These are veterans who come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, families, and outstanding bills,” he says.

Garcia believes that the newly proposed Post-9/11 GI Bill which would pay tuition directly to schools will be crucial to the advancement of his fellow service members.

This bill would largely bring back the structure of the original G.I. Bill that was signed in 1944. That bill, which expired in 1956, offered veterans of World War II full tuition benefits, a book stipend, and a living stipend – prompting half of the 16 million World War II vets to go to school.

Garcia hopes that, if passed into law, the new G.I. Bill will do the same for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Now more than ever, that education is crucial for returning service members given the current economic environment,” he says. “I know many veterans who come back and can’t get a job because they don’t have a degree. Employers wont look at you.” This will be the stark reality for today’s veterans, he says, given that 90 percent of those currently enlisted don’t have a degree past high school.

Student veterans like Garcia played a critical role in getting the new G.I. bill passed through the House and the Senate. The SVA organized its chapter members in letter-writing and phone campaigns and participated in numerous press events with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who introduced the new legislation.

However President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, which is expected to reach his desk by July 4. Presidential hopeful John McCain also opposes the bill, arguing that its benefits could discourage troops from re-enlisting.

Garcia, who graduated in two years as valedictorian of Northeastern University’s College of Business and Management, credits the military for offering him the skills he needed to excel in school. He is currently finishing his master’s in business at the University of Illinois and plans to get his PhD next.

If the new G.I. Bill is vetoed, Garcia says, the country could potentially loose out on what he calls a “new breed” of students – veterans who come back home ready to enter higher education with discipline, focus, and motivation.

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