Mitchell Schueller did not feel nearly as out of place on the St. Ambrose campus in the spring of 2012 as he had patrolling the dangerous streets of Fallujah, Iraq, four years earlier.
Still, the transition from soldier to student was not an entirely comfortable one.
"I pretty much went to classes and then left and went home," the 28-year-old retired Army sergeant said of his first semester at SAU. "I didn't try to get to know anybody. I figured I didn't have anything in common with the other students."
Thankfully, Schueller soon found out otherwise.
Scheduled to graduate next spring with a degree in industrial engineering, the Durant, Iowa, native found his campus footing "when I kind of let my guard down," he said.
He since has traveled to South America for an engineering and occupational therapy service trip, is working as an engineering intern at John Deere this summer, and has been both president and vice president of the SAU Military and Veterans Organization.
In the classroom, Schueller discovered a sense of discipline he didn't have as a student prior to enlisting in 2007, as well as a comfort level he hadn't anticipated on return to civilian life.
"Everyone I have gone to-administrators and teachers-has been open to helping me," said Schueller, who also saw battle action in Afghanistan during his four-year stint. "Everyone I have shared the fact I am a veteran with has taken it in a positive light.
You can tell they appreciate it."
Schueller was one of 134 former members of the military enrolled at St. Ambrose in the spring of 2014, and is part of a growing number of men and women leaving military service as a drawdown in Afghanistan follows the 2012 US withdrawal from Iraq.
As the nationwide pool of veterans grows, St. Ambrose is well positioned to help vets take advantage of the educational benefits they earned through their service. That is owed in no small part to the presence of Andrew Gates '11 as coordinator of the St. Ambrose Office of Veterans Recruitment and Services.
Veterans like Schueller and retired Marines Rob Dennis, Sandi Bunch '14 and Calista Crouthamel said St. Ambrose has provided a welcoming and helpful life-long learning environment. And that is true because Gates and the SAU administration take serving veterans every bit as seriously as recruiting them.
"A lot of veterans going to school elsewhere still feel like they get the run around," said Bunch, who received her Bachelor of Business Administration degree through the St. Ambrose ACCEL program in May. "Andrew Gates always dropped everything to help if I was confused about something or if there was something going on with the US Veterans Administration. At St. Ambrose, veterans are not viewed as a problem or extra duty."
As a Marine veteran of two tours in Iraq himself, as well as an SAU grad with a bachelor's in journalism, Gates understands the difficult transition veterans entering a classroom can encounter.
"There are personal issues, environmental issues, vets go through-not necessarily feeling safe, not trusting people," Gates said. "And you are used to such a high operational tempo in the military. Things slow down in the classroom."
On the other hand, he noted, "I think vets coming into the classroom are a resource. They bring a worldly experience you don't get from students who haven't got their kind of background."
Dennis is a 41-year-old secondary education and history major who retired as a sergeant in 2011 after 18 years in the Marines. He said he doesn't tell his considerably younger classmates about his experiences in difficult places like Rwanda and Somalia.
"They're not there to learn from me," he said.
And yet they do.
"Sometimes it helps ground younger students," Dan La Corte, PhD, a professor of history, said of the perspective veterans like Dennis can bring to class discussion. "When I see Rob's hand go up, I know everybody is going to get a lesson from experience."
The lessons go both ways. Given that Dennis is driven to teach high school in an urban area where he sees a need for strong male role models, he said his young classmates help him navigate a generational divide.
"I learn every day from other perspectives," he said. "You have to."
Crouthamel is 27 and the fourth oldest member of her Master of Occupational Therapy cohort. For some of the younger students, her military experience is especially beneficial.
"Some of them are interested in working with veterans and the military, so I can really help them with that," said the Boone, Iowa, native, who also is considering a career helping fellow veterans after earning her MOT degree.
In the ACCEL program, which helps working adults attain their degrees, Bunch, 31 and a single mother of one, was one of the "kids" in her classes.
"It's a great dynamic, " she said. "A lot of them have grown kids, so I get to learn from them. It is an amazing atmosphere. You are treated with respect."
The respect readily is returned by veterans, who enter the college classroom highly motivated to learn.
Bunch said she "hated school-hated it" when she enlisted in the Marines at age 18. After serving four years, she earned a number of credits through community college before a "surprise pregnancy" derailed her pursuit of a degree. Five years later, Bunch was looking to build a better life when her job with the Army Sustainment Command at the Rock Island Arsenal led her to re-enroll through the ACCEL program.
In May, the professed school "hater" was named the 2014 ACCEL Student of the Year. Now, the proud college graduate is committed to a lifetime of learning. A St. Ambrose MBA degree may be her next challenge. "I am excited to set that example for my daughter," she said. "To show her learning is important to me, so that hopefully it will be important to her."
Schueller said the military experience that at first made him feel apart at St. Ambrose now whets his appetite for a lifetime of learning. He said a master's and possibly a doctorate are on his agenda.
"I deployed to some of the worst parts of the world," he said. "You see suffering. So I appreciate coming back to America and the chances I have to better myself here. I intend to take full advantage."