Life Keeps On Keeping On


Located in the heart of a military town, the University of San Diego has always been dedicated to its military students. But in recent years, USD has stepped up its support of veteran students in a big way.

The timing is spot on. The newest version of the GI Bill — which was first signed into law in 1944 to assist veterans returning from World War II — is known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It was enacted in 2008. The purpose? To help the nearly 2 million service members who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts attend colleges, universities and training programs.

In large part because of these benefits, there’s been a flood of veteran students on college campuses that hasn’t been seen in half a century.

According to Marvin Veneracion, the VA school certifying official in USD’s Office of the Registrar, there are currently about 375 students using theirGI Bill benefits — up about 87 percent from the average number of veteran students that typically enrolled at USD before the new bill went into effect.

To help meet the needs of these students, USD created a position that in July 2012 was filled by retired Navy Capt. Tim McCandless, the founding coordinator of veteran student services. His job is to advocate for veterans and help each navigate life as a student.

“I liked the thought of helping my fellow veterans achieve success through education,” McCandless says. “The university has great people on staff who are helping veterans in the registrar’s office, in financial aid or in the One-Stop Center, but this position ties it all together.”

McCandless joined the U.S. Navy in 1980, shortly after graduating from the University of Vermont, Burlington. During his three decades of service, he saw many ports in many lands. He was stationed in Europe three times, including in Berlin, where he worked for the U.S. ambassador from 2005 to 2008. He retired from the Navy in 2010, after teaching at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and then spent two years training people for positions as attachés. In 2012, he packed his bags once again, and traveled across the country to take his post at USD.

Some of the veterans’ needs are similar to those of their classmates — financial aid, housing, registering for classes. But many of their needs are distinct — such as maneuvering through the complexities of their GI Bill benefits, VA benefits and health concerns such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury and simply managing the transition to life as a college student.

McCandless knows firsthand what it’s like to transition from military life to civilian life.

“From the moment you go to boot camp and get that buzz cut, you become part of the military culture,” McCandless says. “It can infuse your personality and after a few years — or 30 years, in my case — it can be difficult to transition back.”

McCandless wants to find ways to connect veterans to each other and to give them the sense of belonging that was so strong when they were in the military. He will also track academic advising, academic support, campus events, assistance with financial aid, retention rates, graduation rates, career planning and employment for veteran students.

“When I came in on a recent morning there was a student outside my office waiting to talk,” McCandless says. “He’s a single father and he had to drop a class because it was too much to juggle. That brought him down from 16 units to 12 and he wanted to know if it would affect his financial aid.”

Senior James Gregoire, who majors in business administration, is certainly glad to have McCandless help him as he transitions to civilian life.

Gregoire joined the U.S. Navy in November 2001, just weeks after 9/11. He spent eight years as a medic and for nearly two years was stationed in the Gulf aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz. He enrolled at USD in 2011 and sees a big difference between his first year, before the arrival of McCandless, and this year.

“Last year, I had to go from one person to the next to get all my questions answered,” Gregoire says. “Everyone was accommodating and very willing to help me, but it’s nice to have someone like Tim McCandless as a single point of contact. It shows USD’s commitment to its veteran students.”

Gregoire is a husband to wife Ashlea, who’s still on active duty in the Navy, and a dad to a 2-year-old son, PJ, and another son, Brady, who was expected to arrive in early January. Gregoire carries 16 units, is president of USD’s Student Veterans’ Organization, which was founded in 2011, and is the coordinator for a youth basketball league in Chula Vista.

“I’ve always tried to keep one foot in civilian life, but the transition can be a challenge,” he says. “In the military, you’re in a world where your time is not your own, you’re told where to be and what to do. Then you come here where you have to learn to manage your own time, the rules are more relaxed and you don’t have to worry that everything is a threat.”

“These students have a lot on their plates,” McCandless says. “They’ve served our country honorably and they deserve our very best efforts. That’s why I’m here.” — Krystn Shrieve