From service to school

Story by Eric Larson

It’s a few minutes before 9 a.m. when Jill Doubek walks into the Veterans Center on the ground level of Schofield Hall. Furnished with three couches, two computers and a center table, the room — although somewhat small — has a feeling of comfort to it. Softly-painted blue walls, end tables and lamps; it’s cozy.

As she opens her laptop, she’s joined by several other student veterans. One eats a bagel as he checks his morning email; another flips through a textbook on the couch. Others come to just relax between classes.

For Doubek — a 28-year-old junior business management major, single-mother of one and Navy veteran — the majority of her time on campus is spent in this room.

“It’s sort of intimidating being back in classes,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as she checks an assignment on D2L. “But we — I mean, veterans — have a different outlook on things. Most people are coming in here fresh out of high school. But for me, entering school last year at 28 … I just take it at a completely different level, I guess.”

But that’s not to say she’s hiding from anything. Of the more than 200 veterans at the university, many, she said, visit the center — coming from diverse backgrounds, both in age and military experience, the camaraderie and presence of other veterans serves as a welcoming conversion into a once-dormant academic lifestyle.

“The ease of transition is a case-by-case scenario depending on the veteran,” said Miranda Cross-Schindler, military education benefits coordinator — or, as she calls herself, the liaison between students and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “Many have commented that having a place to relax, eat meals, do homework in the company of fellow veterans has greatly helped them adjust to college life.”

Doubek, who served aboard the George Washington Carrier and FRC Norfolk from 2004-2007, said her time in the Navy was enjoyable. After the birth of her son Reise, though, she decided to pursue a university degree.

“My time at sea was great,” she said. “Once I got done with my military time, I had the option to stay in Virginia or come back to Wisconsin — I’m originally from Rice Lake. I decided to take the school path, and I transferred in with 30 credits.”

Doubek said the most difficult aspect of her time at the university has been adjusting to the learning mind frame — specifically, trying to relate to a different generation of colleagues in class.

“We had a discussion about sexual harassment in one of my classes, and I just had to laugh — we’re trained on that subject so much in the Navy,” she said. “It’s just been odd to come in with an existing ‘life experience’ compared to most — I’ve learned a lot of what my classes are talking about already, not from other classes, but just daily routines in my adult life.”

Doubek said the biggest virtue she’s taken from her Navy experience is punctuality, being well-versed in the “if you’re on time,
you’re late” principle.

“I’m definitely on the ‘fast track’ here,” she said. “I enjoy it, but really, I’m just anxious to get my degree; at this point, there’s no time to lag.”

But the presence of campus veterans spans far beyond the center in Schofield.

Scott Janke, a sophomore-standing elementary education major and Air Force veteran, commutes to the university every day from his nearby hometown of Alma Center, Wis.

Janke — 40 years old with a strong sense of composure and patience — spent 20 years in the Air Force, stationed in and traveling to Texas, California, South Carolina, Japan, Germany, Korea and Antarctica. After earning a position as an instructor of a management course, he began to realize that teaching — coupled with a longing to return home — was becoming his true passion.

“I like being back in school, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s definitely challenging. But now — after all the discipline I’ve learned — I feel that I have a strong sense of commitment. I like to think I’m a dedicated student because of it.”

Janke said his experience in both teaching and traveling has helped make him a diverse and patient worker.

“One of my proudest moments was being deployed after 9/11; I just really felt like I was accomplishing something,” he said. “The most important memories came from things you couldn’t control. When you’re deployed, it gives you the chance to work hard and be successful in something you have no say in … I guess there’s just a certain source of pride in that.”

Similar to Doubek, Janke said he’s steered relatively clear of being involved on campus; not because he feels alienated, necessarily, but more so as a way to focus strictly on academics.

“Everything I’ve experienced, in terms of where I’ve been, different jobs I’ve held, et cetera, will all be a big asset to my future in teaching,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about patience from my time in the Air Force; plus, I like working with kids. It’s easy to talk about concepts when you teach, but when you can use actual examples … well, that really hits home for kids.”

While the “fast track” may seem like a popular route for campus veterans, plenty still find time to get involved.

Broadcast journalism major Scott Morfitt, for example — who took a leave of absence from the university last year when deployed to Iraq through the Minnesota National Guard — is currently the student manager of WUEC, as well as the host of Local Independence — a weekly radio show through the organization.

“I originally enlisted in 2003,” he said. “I was pretty adamant about the war even before the declaration; I realized, though, that I had perceptions of it all with no reality … I guess I wanted to learn more about what drives soldiers.”

He describes his time abroad — which he spent as a strength manager from May 2008 to January 2009 — as predominately “boring,” remembering the days as being continually monotonous.

“It was sort of like ‘Groundhog’s Day,’” he said with a laugh. “Every day was the same.”

Despite the monotony, he said he’s grateful for the experience.

“It really answered the questions I had,” he said. “All the soldiers I worked with, I found out, had a great knowledge of world politics — I gained a lot of knowledge and respect, and learned a lot myself. I don’t necessarily see myself pursuing a political career, but I’m glad I was able to come back with that first-hand experience and knowledge.”

While the veteran presence on campus may be overlooked by most, the reality is this: A number of students on campus have spent time overseas serving the country. Some are anxious to get their degree and graduate, while others have become involved in the university’s many extra-curricular offerings.

Regardless, said Cross-Schindler, it’s important to know they’re here.

“It’s always appropriate to thank (them) for their services,” she said. “The bottom line is that (veterans) on campus ‘wear the same hat’ as everyone else … (but still), a simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”

*Editor’s note: Scott Morfitt has freelanced for The Spectator in the past.