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New office at college gives soldiers a leg up
Capt. Janita Mastin uses a computer Wednesday inside the Veterans Success Center at North Georgia College & State University to look up information regarding financial aid and eligibility for the G.I. Bill. Mastin, who served in the Air Force for seven years, will be attending the university in the fall as a graduate student in nursing education. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When soldiers come home after active duty and want to start college, one of their first options is to fill out an application for the Montgomery G.I. Bill.

The process opens them up to financial aid, depending on how and when they served.

Only problem is, the application can take up to an hour and a half to finish. Plus, it's filled with acronyms and questions about specific types of service that even longtime enlisted members may not understand.

So, officials at North Georgia College & State University, which has about doubled its active service member student population in the last 10 years, decided they should do something about that. Which is why they opened the Veterans Success Center within the school's financial aid office.

"It makes it a lot more personable for us, as far as finding educational benefits available for us," said Spc. Blake Weaver, a political science major at North Georgia who has served in the Army National Guard for six years. "We get brief classes in our units, but it's nice to have someone decipher it for us."

Depending on whether they served in an active war zone, full time or in the Army Reserves or National Guard, students are able to access different types of financial aid. And Jill Raynor, director of financial aid, said the office also serves to direct students to other services, too.

"We want it to not only do financial aid, but to get them the best benefits available," she said. "Also, to be a resource center for all students on campus. ... We've started making contact with the VFW, so if (students) want to talk with people who have been in military zones, they can do that."

Raynor said the financial aid office staff has been working for two years to work out the space and staffing. There's a computer workstation where students can fill out the military aid forms online, and they're sitting near staff member Kayla Cox, a Veterans Affairs certifying officer who is ready to answer any questions about the forms or walk them through specific steps.

Or, Cox said, help decipher the acronyms that permeate military speak.

For example, every service member gets a DD214 - which is simply a form that lists how long they have been in the military. Or, an N.O.B.E. - a notice of basic eligibility, required to get your AIT (a form that records what type of job you want in the military).

"It took me about three years to grasp the language and the politics. It's a different lifestyle and a different family," said Capt. Janita Mastin, who spent seven years on active duty in the Air Force and is now in the Reserves. She's planning to enter North Georgia in the fall to get her master's degree in nursing.

After seven years learning the language of military acronyms and the art of "passing the buck" on to a superior, Mastin said it's helpful to be able to come to the Veterans Success Center and get help from a professional who knows the paperwork inside and out. It's also helpful to have a civilian in the office who can help with the transition back to "civilian society," Mastin said.

"It's a tough transition from active duty to reservist," she said. "It's a full-time job, but being part-time military, things don't move as quickly."

Cox said she usually meets with students first to get a handle on what their specific needs are, then, takes them through the application process, depending on what financial aid they qualify for.

"They come in here and start applying on this computer," she said. "I'm the one helping them choose the right answers. ... There's a lot of different things to be guided through. Then do a breakdown of benefits, verify enrollment."

All of these steps would usually be done by just the student. And with a rising population of students who are also veterans, it's more important than ever, Raynor said.

"Ten years ago we did probably 300 students getting veterans benefits, and now more than 600 get the G.I. Bill," she said. "We have every kind of veteran - the young students coming in did basic (training) and now are with the Reserves or National Guard. Then we have Chapter 30s, who have done their six years. Some are injured in duty, and (there's) family where the spouse or child is injured."

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