WASHINGTON — The students in the Saturday morning class trickle in and, as they introduce themselves around a table, reveal far more intimate biographies than just name and hometown.
One confesses to demons he struggles to control. Another says he's here to find a community. "Forgive me," an Iraq war veteran begins haltingly. "I have to use notes. I have a brain injury."
The students are participants in a veterans writing seminar at George Washington University, where for two days they immerse themselves in the basics of the craft and learn how to plumb for therapeutic and creative purposes their experiences in places like Iraq, Bosnia and Vietnam. The class is a non-credit weekend seminar open to veterans and their relatives, but the university plans to soon adapt the model into a for-credit semester-long course for student veterans.
The seminar is part of a trend of veterans-only courses offered at colleges and universities, part of a concerted effort to cater to a population that tends to be older, more experienced and farther removed from the classroom than traditional undergraduates.
Introductory courses on campus life help veterans navigate the unfamiliar terrain of a college environment while academic classes set aside for veterans are designed to help them learn in smaller settings and alongside peers with similar backgrounds. The courses are often peppered with military references and sometimes taught by fellow veterans.
"Different institutions are using veterans-specific courses for a variety of reasons, but largely it has to do with ensuring that veterans have a smooth and comfortable transition from the military culture into the civilian culture," said Meg Mitcham, director of veterans programs at the American Council on Education, a higher education association.
Still, not all courses have had staying power.
It's not simple to find courses that appeal broadly to veterans of different ages and generations, not all veterans seek to identify themselves as such, and there's not universal agreement that veteran-oriented classes are the best way to acclimate a group that may already feel isolated.
Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said that while there are obvious benefits to the model, there's also the argument of: "Does it necessarily help with re-reintegration, and specially integration into a college campus, if they're being removed from the student population?"
The courses are but one example of services that colleges are offering to a surge of veterans who have enrolled after the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which expanded tuition benefits. An ACE survey found that 62 percent of the 690 colleges and universities that responded provide programs and services, including post-traumatic-stress counseling and specially trained staff. The Department of Veterans Affairs says 441,710 veterans and eligible beneficiaries are enrolled this fall in educational programs using Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits.
That focus may only intensify now that the Iraq war has ended and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, with new veterans seeking education.
Specialized courses enable brick-and-mortar institutions to maintain a toehold in the veterans' education market at a time of increased competition, including from for-profit career colleges and technical programs that critics say use deceptive marketing to target military families.
"Just like the rest of the country, people in the academy over the decade-long conflicts have come to recognize that we have this tremendously small number of people who are bearing this burden for society," said Derek Malone-France, executive director of GW's Writing Program. "There's this real opportunity to collaborate between the academy and military, which is historically a very fraught divide."
"They're back now, and they need it," Malone-France said. "They need to feel that they have a mission. Collectively, they are saying among themselves, 'What we can we do? How can we mobilize?
The courses acknowledge veterans' unique academic and social needs: Incoming freshmen who have seen combat may be less keen on dormitory scavenger hunts than the average 18-year-old undergraduate, but having been away from class for longer, they're also more likely to benefit from advice on balancing their coursework with professional, family and financial responsibilities and adjusting from the regimented military to the freedoms of college life.