LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The transition into college is hard enough for most students. It's even harder for military veterans whose life experience differs greatly from their peers.
In the last decade about a million soldiers have come home from war, some who end up in the Southwest where colleges are slowly finding ways to better accommodate them. One university in Southern New Mexico is starting a new housing model especially for veterans.
On a Thursday night inside the lobby of Garcia Hall at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, students were pumped after a victory by their basketball team. They gathered around a pool table in ripped jeans and nylon shorts that sagged below their waist.
The students are only a couple years out of high school. They're preoccupied with the opposite sex and the latest MP3 on their smartphone.
Their interests are not shared by 46-year-old Tony Cano, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. He served as an infantry soldier and later a platoon sergeant overseeing missions in the Middle East and Asia. Cano is now pursuing a teaching degree.
"It was kind of a scary experience, you know, going to school with kids half your age," Cano said. "First class I walked in to, I sat down and everybody was just looking at me like, 'What's this old guy doing in class?'"
The gap between student veterans and their civilian peers is wide. Even some of the youngest veterans have witnessed the death and destruction of war. Others struggle with life-altering injuries, and many have families.
Cano quickly realized that he wasn't the only student vet uncomfortable with on-campus housing. So last fall he and others pitched an alternative to the university housing department.
Julie Weber is the housing director at New Mexico State. On a recent afternoon she showed off a single family home near the main campus.
"They have a living room, kitchen, one bathroom, and then two bedrooms," she said.
This month a section of this housing will be reserved specifically for student veterans like Tony Cano, who plans to move in this month.
These homes were built in a neighborhood-like setting. They date back to World War II and are kind of crude: 900 square feet of beige cinderblock walls and mismatched tile floors. But the families who move in bring them warmth.
Nine-year-old Rachel Fang played the piano inside one of the houses in the neighborhood where the veterans will live. She moved here from China with her parents, both doctoral students.
"We jump on the trampoline, we play tag we do a lot of stuff, activities," she said.
The houses have their own driveways and even a backyard.
"We plant tomatoes, potatoes and squash and corn and peas," Fang said.
This housing will allow veterans to live near each other and have space for their families and even their dogs. Some veterans bring home dogs that served with them overseas.
Michael Dakduk, who heads the national nonprofit Student Veterans of America, thinks New Mexico State has created a great model.
"It's supportive because it shows that the university still wants them to be a part of that campus culture and add value to it," he said.
More than 800,000 veterans nationwide are taking advantage of the post-9/11 GI Bill, which helps with school-related expenses. Still, Dakduk says veterans are a minority on campuses, just 4 percent of most student bodies.
"As the drawdown eventually happens in Afghanistan and public awareness wanes, I worry that support for veterans may begin to wane as well," he said. "That's why its absolutely critical that we institutionalize programs and resources and policies like what happened in New Mexico."
Many colleges are competing to attract student veterans. Some like San Diego State have already converted fraternity houses for veterans. Others like Ohio State are following the more family-friendly model. That school is set to open 11 on-campus apartments this fall for veterans and their families.
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