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  1. Opinion

Surge of veterans enrolling at St. Petersburg College

After World War II ended, military veterans streamed back home and filled America's colleges, eager to get an education, start a career and raise a family.

Today, Jeff Cavanagh is on the front lines of a similar trend. He's the coordinator of veteran services for St. Petersburg College and he's seeing a big jump in the number of veterans enrolled there. Five years ago, SPC had just over 500 veterans. This semester the number is at least 2,186. His Veterans Services department, with just five professional staff members and spread across four SPC campuses, is working hard to keep up.

Cavanagh believes the rapid rise in enrollment is fueled by several factors: a reduction in force as the wars in the Middle East wind down; the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Florida GI Bill making it easier and cheaper for soldiers to go back to school; and SPC's growing national reputation as a veteran-friendly college. The school was ranked the 15th most veteran-friendly in the nation by the Military Times Edge magazine.

Cavanagh deserves much of the credit for that reputation. A veteran too, he understands their needs and knew SPC could help.

He's a Dixie Hollins High School grad who enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War era after getting a draft number of 16. He retired in 1994 as a captain and ship commander and went to work in the marine industry. Just over five years ago he heard that SPC wanted to start a department to serve veterans. He won the job.

One of his top priorities was to create Veterans Service Centers — campus one-stop shops that would be quiet, comfortable, supportive places for veterans to get any help they needed. Cavanagh was given office space at the Gibbs and Clearwater campuses first. He furnished them with finds from the SPC warehouse and hired a student support adviser for each one. There are now two more centers, on the Seminole and Tarpon Springs campuses, each staffed with one professional adviser. Student veterans hired under a work-study program answer phones and handle other office work.

Cavanagh also redesigned the school's veterans website, streamlined paperwork, and helped students start a local chapter of Student Veterans of America. And he met with faculty and staff who worried about teaching soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Cavanagh doesn't dwell on PTSD — he's convinced all war veterans suffer it to some degree. He's also convinced that veterans can be leaders on campus and top students in class.

But there are some differences between student veterans and regular college students. Most come to college with their military training intact, so they prepare and over-prepare, and they take direction well. They help their "comrades" in class so no one gets left behind.

Some find the freedom and choices in college overwhelming. "I tell the professors to just give them a mission. Keep the level of decisions low and they will do fine," Cavanagh said.

Some have suffered so much trauma that school adds too much anxiety.

"I have seen a combat-hardened former Marine sniper reduced to tears by a math class," Cavanagh said.

And at any given time, SPC has 20 to 30 homeless veterans who need help finding shelter and transportation.

The SPC program doesn't succeed with every veteran, but over the last five years the retention rate has climbed from dismal to near 75 percent — about the same as for nonveteran students, he said. And there have been some stunning successes.

Cavanagh tells a story about a homeless veteran, a man in his 40s, who used to sleep on a bench outside the Veterans Services Center on the Gibbs campus. He was eventually persuaded to enroll and to reach out to other homeless veterans. Today, he works for the Veterans Administration, a life saved from the street, now helping to ensure that his comrades aren't left behind.

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