Ivy Leaf - Fall 2013

Higher Ed Heroes

By Marissa Carney


There are dozens of reasons for joining the military, many of them likely personal for each individual who enlists. What the future holds for these men and women is unknown as they train, deploy, and return home. The course they are on often can veer quickly into another direction because of active duty or injury.

When Dianna Termin enlisted in 2003, she was already a year into her college career at Penn State Altoona. Studying business with an emphasis in marketing, she had no idea it would take her nine years to complete her degree, or that she’d end up with not only a full-time job, but two side businesses, as well, on top of raising a family. Getting to where she is today was a long and winding road full of frustrations and set-backs. The pressures of the military, home-life, and college individually and collectively can be great, and juggling it all can become a nightmare, as Termin knows all too well. “It was an absolute challenge to balance everything, especially time management.” It ended up taking a toll on her marriage, which ended in divorce, and she questioned herself often. “Doubt happens every day. But I have a motto that I will keep going in a particular direction unless I come up with a better idea—apparently this was the best idea I had!”

During her time in college, Termin did two tours in Iraq, one at eighteen months and one at twelve. Looking back, one story that stands out and gives her a chuckle is when Iraqi men tried to buy her. “I’m a senior NCO, and I was out with two male enlisted soldiers. The local Iraqis I was dealing with were having a hard time doing business with me because I am female, and women are considered property in that country. The leader of the men went to my soldiers and tried to buy me with camels—he offered three albino camels for me! Fortunately, they didn’t sell me,” she recalls with a smile.

John Radan enlisted for personal reasons, with the added benefit of helping to pay for his Penn State Altoona education. He chose to join the Marine Corps to continue the family tradition: his grandparents met while in the Corps in Japan, and his father and several uncles enlisted as well. “It was something I wanted to do, not only for the education benefits, but I knew the service would help me grow. Developing into the person I knew I could be someday by being a marine was a big draw. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without the service.”

After four years of active duty, Radan was honorably discharged in 2010 following an injury during a combat readiness exercise. While running as fast as possible from one point to another with a marine on his back, he lost his footing and fell. “After the fall I couldn’t get up and realized that something bad had happened. I severely herniated two discs in my back and will never fully recover from it. I remember thinking shortly after that injury happened that I wouldn’t be young forever. It was at that point that I took a closer look at my future and my academic goals. It was time for college, and Penn State was my first choice.”

Evelyn Erickson’s plans also took a turn when she, too, was injured during a training exercise. The 2013 biology graduate from Montana chose the military to help facilitate her college career and enlisted in 2004. She was being trained as military police and would be used to search females for bombs, other explosives, and weapons. Injuries she sustained during training led to her own honorable discharge in 2006 and left her with chronic pain. Disappointed, Erickson made the best of it and enrolled in college. And although she was never deployed, she says, “I know that some of what these other veterans went through, what they’re juggling and dealing with, is a lot more than I did—and I know how hard it was just for me. It inspires me. So many of them are earning a degree while on active duty and dealing with families. They really are like superheroes.”

Transitioning

Whether having already completed their time in the military or returning from a tour, when they arrive at college, these men and women have some serious transitions to make—not only to civilian life, but to college life as well. And, from melding with the student body to catching up with their studies, it is not always easy. Says Radan, “Being a student veteran can be difficult, with learning how to deal with the academic setting and issues.”

Because he had already done four years of service, Radan was older than most other students when he began college. “I’d been through more than most of them. It was frustrating coping with the age difference and maturity level. My patience was defiantly tested.” Erickson agrees. “You’re much more mature when you’ve gone through the military, so it was difficult at times to connect with the student body.”

Termin found her challenges both within the classroom and program layout. “The greatest obstacle was coming back to school and not having the previous semester fresh in my mind, because the classes build on each other. It’s a disadvantage, and I had to study a lot harder.” She also describes the obstacle of changing degree programs. “I would deploy and come back and the program had changed, so I had to take two extra semesters of classes that weren’t needed before.”

Through the challenges, these vets were able to find support from various people on campus. “A fair number of vets use the adult center on campus,” says Erickson. “So by taking advantage of that, I was able to meet other veterans and people my age. It was hard at first, but it did get better.” Termin was grateful for several professors vocal in their support of the military and the women in it.

And anyone in, out of, or thinking about joining the military can find support through the Veteran’s Education Benefits office. Jean Lasinksi works tireless to help students access money for college through legislative efforts such the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post 9/11 GI bill. Each semester sees about 150 students take advantage of the bills, and the services of Lasinski’s office. Eric Liddick, a 2004 criminal justice graduate from Bellwood, Pennsylvania, states, “It’s great to have something like this, especially for those coming back from combat operations. A lot of our service members who are returning have difficulty adjusting, so having someone who works to bring them back into the fold and helps them take care of administrative matters saves so much stress and angst. For me, it provided a level of comfort knowing someone was handling things, and I didn’t need to be concerned about it. I trusted that it would be taken care of, and it always was, nothing ever fell through.”

And it’s important nothing slips through the cracks. Lasinski’s office is responsible for filling out proper documentation so benefit checks arrive on time: money vets depend on for things such as tuition, rent, and books.

Working so closely with these students gives Lasinski time to speak with them and get to know them, many times becoming counselor and friend. “It makes me feel really humble because these students tell stories that just blow my mind. It’s beyond comprehension what some of them have gone through. I’m thrilled to be able to do this.” Lasinski has many stories that have stuck with her through the years: one graduate was late getting on a helicopter and had to board a second one. The one she was supposed to be on blew up, killing her friends and her commanding officer. Another student told her that, when going into a classroom, he had to know each possible exit because of claustrophobia and anxiety over being in a closed room. Lasinski mentioned students with ruptured discs and students who lost limbs from their service, and spoke of an incoming freshman who lost both of his parents in combat.

Lasinksi and administrative assistant Chryl Harshbarger go even further in their commitment to supporting these students by making helmet liners for those who get deployed, sending them away with something practical, but also something to say “you will always be a part of Penn State.” “They’re on my prayer list—there’s my prayer wall right there—here’s all the people who are on deployment. They know that I’m thinking about them. This is more than just my job. After twenty years, it’s become a part of me.”

Onward

As these veterans finish their degrees and move forward with their careers, many of them still desire to serve something bigger than them, to make a difference somewhere.

For Termin, that is trying to tackle the homeless veteran problem in Blair County. While volunteering for the Veteran’s Hospital in Altoona, Termin became aware of the severity of the problem and experienced a change in her perspective of homeless individuals. She met a vet who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was unable to find a job. “There are a lot of people like that right here in our area. It’s important to me, and I’m doing it because it could be me on the other end of the stick. If I hadn’t been able to find a job, I could be the homeless one.”

The non-profit organization is in its first stages—finding property and grant writers. The five- to ten-year plan includes temporary apartments for the vets and job training workshops in partnership with the Blair County Welfare Office and Penn State Altoona’s Enactus team. The goal is to have the vets move into their own homes and become productive members of society.

Even while still in the military with a full-time job, a part-time for-profit business, a relationship, and a six-month-old baby girl, Termin jokes, “I ain’t burned out yet!”

Radan also is working with the issue of shelter, but focusing on Section 8 housing and low-income families. Along with another Penn State Altoona graduate, Radan formed J&J Transitions, of which he is CEO. The real estate development company will rehabilitate properties and, with the help of the Altoona Housing Authority, will identify and move in eligible families. Quarterly throughout the lease, Radan and his partner will offer home improvement weekends in which they will help families remodel the homes through painting and other projects.

J&J Transitions was a winning entry in Penn State Altoona’s spring Pechter Business Plan competition. Using the $5,000 prize money and other benefits from the competition, the company has been able to take its first steps by purchasing its first house in early June. Radan hopes to land a full-time job with Sheetz Inc., where he interned over the summer, and manage J&J Transitions part-time.

Liddick remains in the military as an attorney at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He recently returned from a six-month stint in Afghanistan. Erickson plans to attend graduate school.

These veterans and Lasinski alike hope to see an increase in services at the college over the coming years. Lasinski states, “I’d like to see the success rate of our programs on campus go up, I’d like to see a place for veterans to just decompress, a place they can share with others who have had the same experiences. The community is very good about supporting our veterans, but I would like to see their service recognized even more. These are people who have truly done heroic things and should be recognized for that.”


Enactus in Action

Penn State Altoona’s Enactus team worked with the Blair County Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the “Hiring Our Heroes” initiative, a hiring fair for veteran job seekers, active duty military, members of the National Guard and reserve components, as well as military spouses. The event was held in early April at the Jaffa Shrine in Altoona. Enactus members hosted a “warm-up” booth where they coached fifty-eight veterans in their hiring pitches before they entered the fair.

Students also held a workshop prior to the fair and helped prepare six veterans one-on-one. Topics included resume writing, effective networking, dressing for success, and interviewing. Veterans left with five copies of their resume and a polished “elevator pitch” on themselves.

The workshops were part of Enactus’ New Beginnings project. Similar workshops are held with the specialty courts of Blair County and the Emergency Shelter Project of Family Services, Inc.