A tour of duty in Okinawa gave then-20-something-year-old Cleanon Woods his first taste of the world outside his Midwestern hometown. The young man had looked forward to traveling when he joined the Marines, and his time abroad proved an eye-opener.
“There were a lot of things I had to learn. You know, speaking to the Japanese citizens, trying not to offend them in any way,” he says. That meant, for example, knowing to greet them with a bow rather than the more usual, for Americans, handshake, hug or kiss on the cheek. As for the Japanese language, he says, “I learned enough to get me by.”
These days Woods is a management and international business major looking to earn a degree that will complement his more than 12 years in the service. He was last stationed at Southern Command in Doral, just down the road from Modesto A. Maidique Campus, where he held an administrative position.
At FIU, beyond working toward graduating later this year, Woods has found a new mission: helping veterans navigate college life. Just as learning daily Japanese customs and some language aided him overseas, Woods recognizes that former and current military personnel—both of whom take classes at FIU—likewise need a hand in getting acclimated to campus. So with a group of others, he helped found the FIU chapter of the national Student Veterans of America (SVA) two years ago.
“My goal is to get them to be open minded and just try to affiliate with the regular student body,” Woods says of his mates, who number as many as 2,000 at FIU, including former and current active duty personnel as well as their dependents who qualify for government tuition assistance under the GI Bill. “Getting veterans to actually participate in what the school has to offer. Keeping them involved. The more you’re involved on campus, the better success you’re going to have.”
Easing back into civilian life
Studies show that students in general who are engaged are more likely to graduate. SVA encourages that by supporting academic success through peer tutoring and mentoring as well as by organizing extracurricular activities such as intramural sports teams and community service opportunities such as beach cleanups and visits to veterans in nursing homes. And the group’s leaders push colleagues to interact as much as possible with nonmilitary students—despite a strong tendency to stick together.
“All veterans like being around other veterans, just like any other insular group,” says Christopher Johnson, a former member of the Maryland Army National Guard and now an IT major who is involved with SVA. “They’re the only people who can relate to some of the experiences.”
Johnson, who has built strong connections with non-vets through a fraternity and several FIU honors societies, completed two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. In Baghdad he processed detainees at the same camp that once held Saddam Hussein. “The worst job any person could have,” he says. “You’re dealing with insurgents, terrorists, Al-Qaeda fighters who cut off people’s heads.”
Given the often-intense nature of their military work, veterans can find the contrast of nonmilitary life challenging. For Johnson, 33, the source of his discomfort comes from a sense that civilians don’t understand just how lucky they are.
“That transition from being a soldier to a civilian is not an easy transition. You look around, you see a lot of [college] kids, you see a lot of adults maybe your age who didn’t volunteer. They’re having a good time. They’re wasting their time in class joking,” Johnson says.
“When you’re overseas, the one thing I missed, outside of my family, was the ability to just leave my house and go and get some wings and a beer,” he says of the personal freedom he sacrificed by enlisting. (Freedom of speech, he adds, likewise does not exist in the service.) “Something so simple, so small, that everybody takes for granted. And then you come home and everybody has everything, and nobody really appreciates it.”
Air Force veteran Alma Rosario agrees that returning can be difficult for a population used to strict discipline. A native of South Florida, she arrived at FIU after hurting her back in 2012 in Iraq, where she served as a medical logistics technician. “We’re just so structured,” she says, “and it’s almost like you’re thrown into chaos when you start college.”
As president of SVA, which operates out of MMC’s refurbished air-traffic control tower, Rosario, 27, works closely with those who struggle, often starting by helping them identify a major.
She and the team have organized resume workshops and career fairs, presented a resource fair for women veterans, scouted out jobs and housing for those in need, and raised funds for vets who are short on book money or whose education benefits have run out. And as a leader with the Miami platoon of the nonprofit The Mission Continues, she has helped steer others to internships.
Already holding an undergraduate degree from FIU, Rosario is herself currently an intern with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and eyeing several jobs as she gets ready to graduate later this year with a master’s in disaster management. She says the motivation to help her fellow vets comes, in part, from her own brother’s having committed suicide after coming home from Afghanistan suffering with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury.
“Veterans need organizations like this,” she says. “If he had been part of an organization like this, he would probably still be here.”