Two years ago Rob Wright was scouring the rocky terrain of Afghanistan, searching for wounded soldiers as a combat flight medic.
His six-year service in the Air Force included three tours in the war-torn country and patching hundreds of wounds.
By the time he returned to civilian life this past July, the fresh-faced 18-year-old who enlisted out of high school had been replaced with a man accustomed to the heavy responsibility of making urgent lifesaving decisions every day for those around him.
It’s a difference he has noticed in the classrooms at UNC Charlotte, where the 25-year-old veteran is surrounded by new high school graduates, most of them on their own for the first time.
“I try not to alienate myself because of my age or who I am,” said Wright, a political science and biology double major. “It can be a deterrent sometimes.”
As the wars wind down and fewer and fewer troops are needed in Afghanistan and Iraq, Wright represents a growing population of veterans making the transition from soldier to student after their military service is over.
It’s a population with special needs that researchers are just beginning to investigate.
On Nov. 18, experts from the UNCC Social Work Department, Charlotte Bridge Home, UNCC Office of Veteran Student Services and Mecklenburg County Veterans Services will come together for “Boots to Books: Understanding Military Culture and Supporting a Successful Transition.” The one-day conference is aimed at learning more about student veterans’ needs in order to improve services that help make for a smoother transition.
The conference, which will start at 8 a.m. in Cone University Center’s McKnight Hall, is free and open to the public. It’s funded by a grant from the UNCC Chancellor’s Diversity Fund.
Speakers will include Cindi Basenplier, executive director of Charlotte Bridge Home, an organization that assists Charlotte veterans’ transition back to civilian life; David Vacchi, a national advocate for student veterans; and Ally Jenner, assistant director of the UNCC veteran student services office.
The conference will also have a student veteran panel, which includes Wright, to discuss their unique perspectives.
“Our intent is to try to increase the culture sensitivity – on campus and within the Charlotte community – to student veterans returning to our community,” said Sue Marchetti, a professor in the Department of Social Work at the UNC College of Health & Human Services. Marchetti helped organize the conference.
“It’s really important that faculty on campus understand that veterans are different because there’s a level of maturity in the classroom that perhaps a student out of high school doesn’t have,” Marchetti said.
Charlotte has become the third-most popular relocation city in North Carolina for military veterans. At least 6,000 Mecklenburg residents have served since September 2001, and estimates predict the numbers to grow over the next several years.
On the UNCC campus, 800 students are using some form of GI Bill to pay for their education. That number has continued to rise by 50 to 100 students each year since 2009, when the post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect.
Ally Jenner, assistant director of the UNCC veteran student services office, hopes the conference will help make the university a more military-friendly campus.
“We need to build awareness of their unique challenges,” she said.