From Battlefield to Classroom

Most 18-year-old college freshmen only have a few worries in the world: what show to binge watch next on Netflix and how quickly they can write their 10 page paper a night before it is due. For the 67 U.S. military veterans who are enrolled in Manhattan College as undergraduates, their first semester in college is much different than the average student.

Someone’s first semester at college can be a stressful time, especially if they are leaving home for the first time. For the former servicemen and women at MC, this acclimation process can be challenging in other ways.

Manhattan College is progressively becoming a popular school for veterans to attend because of a unique program that is designed to assist them with their transition to civilian life. The college has developed a relationship with the Warriors at Ease organization that works with veterans to deal with stress, depression and PTSD through meditation and yoga.

This past Columbus Day weekend, 14 students from “The Nature and Experiences of Religion: Veterans’ Stress Reduction Program,” taught by Stephen Kaplan, Ph.D., traveled to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat Centres in Paradise Island, Bahamas to take part in a retreat to help them with the transition.

Kirsten Battocchio, a sophomore and Marine Corps veteran, took part in the experience.

“We learned about yoga and meditation techniques and breathing exercises all to help us with anxiety and to [help] us focus,” she said. “It was all Hinduism and Buddhism based learning, which is why it was through [a] religion [course], but it was good for us because we are veterans and it is good to learn these anxiety techniques.”

Junior Juan Rosario and Air Force veteran who went on the trip the second semester he was here said, “[The trip was] one of the best experiences. We made that bond where it made us closer. Now we know who to look for when you want to talk to somebody or you just want to vent about classes or just life in general.”

He also added, “We also learned a lot of techniques to deal with the stresses. The best thing about it, was that nothing was forced. So we can pick and choose what we liked and didn’t like. It gave us the options that we didn’t have for ‘x’ amount of years while we were serving in the military. It eased us back into what civilian life is.”

Troy Cogburn, director of transfer admissions, is also the advisor to the veterans club on campus.

“The college has really done a lot in one year,” Cogburn said. “This is the second semester that they are doing this and the college has been completely committed to it after hearing the stories of the first group that went.”

He also said that, “this isn’t a fix-all program, but we feel like it helps with them acclimating to college life and to just being back in the city or home. The yoga and meditation gives them a chance to just breathe.”

The trip not only allowed for the veterans to help work through stresses, but also to build relationships with one another.

Battocchio said that her favorite memory from the trip was, “hanging out with all the veterans, having that bonding time with all the rest of the veterans, because we don’t see each other all that much throughout the day.”

Jesse Tossetti, a senior, Navy veteran and Valor Club president said, “because I have PTSD, and some anxiety issues, I was a little bit nervous having been 20 years in the military, and how I would adjust to a campus setting because I am old enough to be these kids’ dad.”

He mentioned  the reason he chose MC was because, “the school definitely encompasses the Lasallian tradition of missions in the way they handle the efforts with the veterans because the majority of us don’t have the common background of the common student here. They all have different complex stories and have served their country in different ways.”

To increase the opportunities to build a community among veterans, an organization called the Valor Club was created on campus.

The Valor Club (Veterans Academic Learning Opportunities Realized) was started by a 2014 veteran graduate. The club’s purpose is to encourage  camaraderie among the veterans and it serves a resource for them to gain mentors among each other.

In the past, they have hosted various comedy shows to raise money for different organizations.

Last year, the club held a fundraiser for a student diagnosed with MS. This year, they are fundraising for the Raider Project, which also helps former servicemen and women transition into civilian life.

Because of this program, the school has recently been recognized as a 2016 Military Friendly School by Victory Media, which helps to connect the military and civilian world. According to the Manhattan College website, this award will allow the school to be featured in a special edition of the G.I. Jobs and Military Spouse Magazine.

As for the increase of the Veteran students on campus and the continuation of this program, Cogburn said, “They [the veterans] are really doing a lot to get themselves adjusted so they can be successful and take advantage of the opportunities for their education. There is a lot of good that is happening.”