Utah student veteran challenged by college grind

Veteran Jen Comer studies for a test during finals week at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Veteran Jen Comer studies for a test during finals week at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Ogden • It’s a revolving door in this study room outside a testing center at Weber State University, where students take final exams.

Jen Carver Comer sits at a table, notes for a social work class on her laptop screen, a Dr. Pepper and miniature candy-bar wrappers in wads to her left.

She’s studying, but she’s not.

A stream of her classmates — several of them veterans, like Comer — pop in and out, commiserating over tough exam questions, reviewing notes for the next test, dipping into Comer’s candy bag.

She has one more exam and one more paper before this hellacious semester is over.

Stressed over personal problems related to child custody and a sister’s drunk-driving arrest, she has found it hard to focus.

Comer, who deployed twice to Iraq while in the Army, takes medication for attention-deficit disorder. But even that hasn’t been much help as she nears the end of a long slog through college.

“The closer I get to graduating, the harder it gets,” says Comer. “It’s almost like time and space do not want me to succeed. It feels like I can’t catch a break right now.”

There’s no sense of accomplishment as fall semester of her senior year winds down. Only relief.

When classmate Sarah Cleverly drops in after her last final, Comer dares to think beyond finals week.

“I’m going to be doing a lot of nothing over the break,” she tells Cleverly.

How do student vets fare? It’s conventional wisdom that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan drop out of college at a higher rate than other students.

Comer says that certainly seems to be the case at Weber State, where she works in the Veterans Services office, helping each student veteran get their Post 9/11 GI bill education benefits.

Most often, the reasons are stress and money; the maximum GI bill benefit is just more than $1,000 a month, which is hardly enough if a veteran has a family to support, she says.

Eric Carver and Jen Comer study at Weber State University. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Eric Carver and Jen Comer study at Weber State University. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“The biggest problem is our Marines,” says Comer. Their intolerance for B.S. makes them seem harsh to fellow students, she says. “They finally get to a point where they become introverts and they just quit and don’t come back.”

Anecdotes abound, but organizations such as the Student Veterans of America — Comer is president of the WSU chapter — take issue with the notion that veterans are more likely to quit college.

Indeed, no one really knows how well schools retain Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because few colleges track the numbers.

According to Veterans Affairs data, the number of vets and active-duty military using the Post 9/11 GI bill for themselves or family members shot up from 34,493 in its first year, 2009, to 555,329 last year. In Utah, where Comer goes to school, the number of those using the new GI bill rose nearly 40 percent to 4,364 between 2010 and 2011.

An executive order from President Obama earlier this year ordered the Veterans Affairs Department to start requiring retention data from colleges and universities, so the picture may soon be clearer, says Dave Jarrat, a vice president at InsideTrack, a San Francisco company that helps schools retain students.

At present, though, only a third of colleges appear to track veteran and active-duty military student retention. That’s according to a recent study that Inside Track did with NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs administrators.

Many of the 20,000 students InsideTrack mentors are veterans, Jarrat says. Like non-traditional students, veterans and those in the military often juggle jobs and families as well as school.

But those still serving active duty, or in the Reserves or Guard, face another obstacle as well: they can be moved or deployed with little notice.

“They are regularly reassigned,” says Jarrat. “They may have to take six months out because they’re deployed.”

Models Jennifer Comer and Liz Phelps share a laugh during a signing party for a charity calendar put out by Addictive Behavior Motor Works in Salt Lake City. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Models Jennifer Comer and Liz Phelps share a laugh during a signing party for a charity calendar put out by Addictive Behavior Motor Works in Salt Lake City. (Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)

‘My mind wasn’t there.’ Michelle DiTomaso, a criminal justice major, is one of those who joins Comer mid-way through finals week.

In between asking for details about Comer’s appearance in a pin-up calendar for a Salt Lake City motorcycle shop, DiTomaso is asking about how to get a companion dog through the VA.

Comer’s own Tyke, a loving little Shih Tzu who is her companion dog, is at home in Riverdale.

DiTomaso is a ROTC student, and a cadet in the Army Reserves 438th Military Police detachment at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City.

She returned in May 2011 after a year in Baghdad with the Reserves, and says Comer has been helpful as the campus’ main student veterans advocate.

The most difficult aspect of returning to college, DiTomaso says, is the occasional inflexible professor.

If a Reservist has two weeks of duty a year, he or she can miss class and needs some leniency.

“When you make that commitment, and then not get help, it’s annoying,” she says.
Comer, who is majoring in social work and criminal justice, says she can’t fault her professors, though she’s worried about failing a social work policy class.

She didn’t turn in two of a major paper’s sections along the way, but finished the full paper at the end of the semester.

“I’m hoping I squeeze by because if I don’t, I’m going to end up having to retake that class and that will push me into another semester.”

But she add, “If I get mediocre grades, I deserve it. My mind wasn’t there.”

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  • Paulie Pickle

    “Most often, the reasons are stress and money; the maximum GI bill benefit is just more than $1,000 a month, which is hardly enough if a veteran has a family to support, she says.” WTF?. I used to get measly $400/month from the G.I Bill, had to work 20 hrs/week and lost a semester due to Desert Storm re-activation and still managed to graduate in 4 years.

    • Scott

      Paulie, good job on that 3-1/2 year Communications degree, you big stud!!

      As for getting by on $400/mo, working 20hrs/week, and still going to school (living in mom and dad’s basement no doubt…), did you ever consider the higher cost of living, and skyrocketing tuition costs?

      • Paulie Pickle

        Hi Scott. Got my B.S. degree in transcendental meditation, was chauffuerred to college every day and stayed in 5th Park Avenue penthouse.

  • MH

    I am a veteran and got my AAS in accounting while working full-time for a year of my 2 year program. I am now a year away from my BS. It’s hard and takes ongoing discipline and sacrifice of free time. I think a veteran coming back needs to relax for a few months and do some thinking on whether college is really right for him or her. Maybe seeking employment is the right path instead of college.