Challenges await students returning from duty

Sunday, May 27, 2007
Aaron Rinehart studied for his corporate finance final May 9 in the MU Memorial Union in Columbia, Mo. (Wm. Srite ~ Columbia Missourian)

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Students returning to the University of Missouri-Columbia from military service can find their efforts to resume their studies hampered by bureaucracy.

When students are called to active military duty, school policy gives them two options: Drop their classes and receive a tuition refund, or take incomplete grades and finish the coursework when they return.

What's lacking, one student said, is any sort of guidance.

In May 2005, Aaron Rinehart -- then a senior -- was given three weeks notice that his Marine unit was about to be deployed to the African nation of Djibouti. He didn't know which option to take.

Neither, he told the Columbia Missourian, did his professors.

"They were asking me, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' and I didn't know," Rinehart told the newspaper. "It felt like we were making these half-cocked decisions, and I said, 'God, this is going to come back and bite me.' And it did."

Rinehart chose both. He withdrew from his three economics classes and took incompletes in his other two courses, computer programming and philosophy.

After his return from Africa in April 2006, he checked in with the school's veterans official, Carol Fleisher, and was told he had been given F's in all five of his classes.

"I was glad I didn't know that when I was gone," he said, "or I would've been really stressed out."

Fleisher worked out the situation, with some difficulty.

"I can't imagine what I'd do without her help," Rinehart said. "I'd be doing it all on my own."

Rinehart was let out of his philosophy final, receiving a B based on his course work before his deployment. Other hurdles remained, though.

Rinehart found that one of his economics professors was no longer teaching at the campus and had to appeal to the department head to be allowed to take a different class. He still hasn't received his tuition refund from the dropped classes but was billed for the ones he retook.

"It'd just be nice if it was easier, coming back," he said. "The university is a huge mess. This isn't the first war they've been through."

According to the regional Department of Veterans Affairs office in St. Louis, 7,395 active-duty and reserve members in Missouri were using the Montgomery G.I. Bill to help pay for college as of September.

In response to problems faced by Rinehart and others, student veterans have organized.

They formed the Mizzou Student Veterans Association a year ago, and the group now has about 80 members.

Besides giving student veterans a chance to socialize, it also works to help them resolve problems with university policies.

In one case, the association wrote to chancellor Brady Deaton to complain about the school's financial aid department, which was charging late fees to veterans because their G.I. Bill payments didn't arrive until after the university's due date for semester fees.

That got the issue resolved, said Jerod Mickelson, the organization's former president.

"No one seems to think about these things in the school system until one person sees an easier way to do things, and then they're like, 'Oh,"' said Mickelson, a senior who is a member of the Army National Guard.

Mickelson, who has twice been deployed to Iraq, said he would like to see a one-stop help center at the university, similar to one at the University of Minnesota.

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