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For older veterans struggling in college, the key to graduation is individual attention

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Meredith Turk
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Marcus Dawson is a recent veteran and a student at Jefferson Community College. He is a VA work study student at JCC. He works in the Veterans Affairs office to help other veterans transition into academic life.

Going back to school is challenging for veterans. The majority who enroll in two or four year colleges across the nation don’t complete their degree. Jefferson Community College in Watertown and SUNY Canton will be awarded over $1 million this year to help more veterans graduate. School administrators say individual attention is key.

Picture this:  You're a student, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. You walk into a classroom and its filled with men and women in Army  uniforms. Today's lesson is military operations.

"You sit down in there and tell me how you would do. How many questions you'd ask," Robert Harding asks.

This is the type of scenario Harding, at JCC, says veterans experience when they go back to school, except in reverse. They're the odd man out. Harding says it's not that veterans can't do the work, its that they're out of their comfort zone.

"I may be 44 years old with a wife and three kids and I just commanded 600. Now I left that. I'm with 19, 20, 21 year old people and I can't remember why A + B = C," Harding says.

According to Harding, the majority of the  400 veterans enrolled at JCC are older students who haven't written an essay or done math for almost 20 years. Most drop out after a few months. Harding says money from the SUNY system will help create remedial English and math classes specifically for veterans. The school will also hire more tutors to work one on one with students. 

Rebecca Smalls Kellogg, director of JCC's Learning and Success Center, says building relationships with students will help identify those that are struggling.

"What we're trying with this program is to have these tutors have the opportunity to ask those types of questions," she says.

Kellogg says the grant will establish a connection between JCC and SUNY Canton, so students interested in earning a bachelors later can transition to Canton easily. Kellogg says she thinks we owe our veterans the chance at an education.

"If they need more time transitioning into an environment they haven't lived in, I think we ought to give them more than what I can give them right now."