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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we turn to a very different education story: American soldiers moving from the battlefield to the classroom. As of this weekend, a new GI bill will help recent veterans pursue their educations. Service members who served in active duty after 9/11 are eligible for four years of college tuition at any state university, plus a monthly stipend and the cost of books, and if the veterans themselves don't use the education benefit, they can pass it on to a spouse or a child.

Many historians credit the original GI Bill with creating America's middle class after World War II. During a recent speech at George Mason University in Virginia, President Obama said he hopes this new bill will have a similar impact.

President BARACK OBAMA: We do this not just to meet our moral obligation to those who've sacrificed greatly on our behalf and on behalf of the country. We do it because these men and women must now be prepared to lead our nation in the peaceful pursuit of economic leadership in the 21st century.

MARTIN: We want to talk about the new GI Bill and what it may mean for millions of veterans and for the nation's universities. We're joined by Staff Sergeant John Sapien(ph), a senior at George Mason University and former Green Beret. He's with me here in our Washington studios. And Craig Westman is an associate provost for enrollment at the University of Texas at El Paso, and he joins us from El Paso. Gentlemen, I thank you both for being here.

Sergeant JOHN SAPIEN (US Army): Thank you for having me.

Mr. CRAIG WESTMAN (University of Texas at El Paso): Thank you.

MARTIN: And Staff Sergeant, let me thank you for your service.

Sgt. SAPIEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So talk to me about the new GI Bill, and you're already using the old GI Bill. So if you'd just start by telling me about what the old GI Bill does and how is this new bill an improvement.

Sgt. SAPIEN: In August of 2007, I left the U.S. Army Special Forces and was accepted at George Mason and proceeded to go about the process of receiving my benefits. Now, because I served for five years in the Army, I received full benefits, 100 percent, as opposed to the National Guard or Reserves, who have, depending on the amount of time they serve, different amounts, allotments that they can receive.

I was also taking full-time status, so I would again receive 100 percent of my benefits a month. So what this basically equated to was about $1,400 that I would receive every month to help me pay for my education.

MARTIN: It wasn't a lot though. I mean, $1,400 sounds like a lot, but was there a gap there between what you got and what schooling actually cost?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Oh, absolutely, and in fact, when I first started in 2007, it was closer to $1,300. There's been some increases in the funds. But I had to take out student loans every year, and including this year, I think I'm approximately at $25,000, which of course, once I'm done, I'll have to pay back. So yes, there is a huge different between the former, the Montgomery GI Bill, and what we have now with the post-9/11 GI Bill.

MARTIN: Do you feel that it comes in time to help you? I mean, you're a senior now. Will this actually do anything for you?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Sure. Actually, I graduate in December, and it will save me as much as $8,000 in student loans that I've already had to take out.

MARTIN: Can I ask you what it means to you to have this kind of support? I mean, you volunteered to serve. I can tell you're proud of your service because you're wearing, you know, an insignia. So we certainly can see that. But does this mean something to you to have this additional support, in addition to, obviously, the financial aspect of it?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Absolutely. The president came out to speak at George Mason University, and we were invited to attend. They selected several veterans from the community, and to have the president there, in your backyard, talking about issues related to you, it absolutely means, it means a lot to have that support.

MARTIN: Craig Westman, talk to me about the impact you think it'll have at the University of Texas at El Paso. How many - as I understand it, first of all, the university does a lot of outreach to veterans.

Mr. WESTMAN: It does, and we have a large base that's located right in El Paso. It's Fort Bliss, about 20,000 soldiers. For us, what this has really meant for a lot of individuals in our community is that opportunity to pursue their educational goals.

In my office, we have a Military Services Office. Veterans can come in and basically get a one-stop shop, get questions answered about their benefits, admissions to the university, registration, financial aid. So we see an uptick in our traffic within our office, just over the last month, of individuals wanting to take advantage of these new benefits that are being offered by the federal government.

Especially what we're seeing, too, is a lot of families coming in, where the father, mother, who has these benefits are now asking questions about being able to give this to their family members in order for them to pursue their educational goals.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about the impact of the new GI Bill for military veterans. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the life and legacy of Naomi Sims, the first black supermodel and entrepreneur. We'll hear from one who followed in her footsteps, the legendary Beverly Johnson.

That's in just a few minutes, but first we're going to continue this conversation about the new GI Bill. It's part of our Summer Education series. The U.S. government is spending $87 billion over the coming decade to help educate the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's an update to the original GI Bill, which dates back to World War II.

Our guests are Craig Westman from the University of Texas at El Paso and Army Staff Sergeant John Sapien. He's a senior at George Mason University in Virginia. Thanks for staying with us. John, so what are you studying?

Sgt. SAPIEN: I'm studying right now government and international politics. I currently am working on a co-op program with the Department of State. So it fits in nicely.

MARTIN: And you mentioned that President Obama had visited George Mason to talk about this initiative. He mentioned how he personally, or his family personally benefited from the original GI Bill.

President OBAMA: Indeed, one of the men who went to college on the GI Bill, as I mentioned, was my grandfather, and I would not be standing here today if that opportunity had not led him west in search of opportunity.

MARTIN: John, I believe your family has a similar story?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Absolutely. My grandfather received benefit from the GI Bill when he came back from World War II. My father, who was a draftee in Vietnam, also used GI Bill benefits, and so again, I follow in the footsteps of all those great men and use them myself.

MARTIN: Craig Westman, what impact do you think this will have on your student body? As I understand it now, three percent of UTEP students are service members, but then, as you mention, that Fort Bliss is in El Paso, and then there's another installation moving to the area. So what effect do you think it'll have? Do you think that a larger percentage of the students now will come from the military?

Mr. WESTMAN: Yes, just by virtue of our relationship with Fort Bliss, then our outreach efforts to the military, and just by virtue of the benefits. As Sergeant Sapien had said, it makes a huge difference in the lives of these students.

MARTIN: Do veterans need any other support, in addition to money, to transitioning back into the college or university environment? I mean, John, I'm going to ask you the same question, too, but Craig, what have you observed? Are there any other things that the institutions could do to help the veterans get back into the groove?

Mr. WESTMAN: A lot of the services do happen because of our location to the base, do happen there. From our standpoint, in terms of enrollment services, we have several advocates that actually just help the soldiers make that transition into university life and have them walk through the various steps that are needed, from admissions to registration to their financial aid.

MARTIN: So John, can I ask you this question? What was it like, though, to transition back to college after serving two tours in Afghanistan?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Well, I submitted my application for George Mason University in a firebase on the Helmand Province. We had access to satellite telephones, and I had already done all the legwork. I just needed my wife to submit my application. So I formally walked her through what I wanted to say while I was sitting at that firebase.

MARTIN: The interview must have been interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sgt. SAPIEN: Well, you know, it definitely was. You know, where are you coming from? The Helmand Province, Afghanistan. You know, it's pretty not fun out here. And that was in 2007. So it's changed a lot since then. But I left the Army in August of 2007, and I started in August of 2007 at George Mason.

We had just gotten back from our deployment in April. So I had a couple of months of being back in the States and getting kind of used to it. Definitely being in the special-operations community, we were, you know, given a little bit more latitude.

I was given the opportunity to come visit my wife in D.C. more than I would have if I would have been in the regular Army, and my command, my chain of command, pretty much authorized me to take whatever steps I needed to take to get adjusted here in Washington. And so that part was easy.

MARTIN: What's the biggest change, being in a university environment than being in Afghanistan?

Sgt. SAPIEN: Sure. The biggest change is just being in a classroom with individuals who don't exactly share your life experience, don't have time to kind of fill in or to get down with what, you know, you have, the knowledge you have, and especially George Mason University has been often known as a commuter university. So it's mixed. The class is mixed. You know, there'll be 18-year-olds there, there'll by 38-year-olds there, and so just finding kind of that place where you fit in, where you belong.

George Mason in early 2008 identified these types of problems, and myself and another individual name Joshua Loughton were selected to identify not only problems that vets were facing at George Mason but how best the university could solve them.

So ultimately we were able to hire an individual, an Iraqi war vet, to come in and act as our veterans' liaison and he's doing the same things that they're doing at University Texas El Paso. He's trying to get out there and meet with individuals. You need to know who to talk to in financial aid. You need to know who to talk to in the VA. I mean it's two totally different steps and they're, frankly, they're pretty long. It can take an upwards of three months here. All of our paperwork gets routed through New York, and to, you know, identify that you're eligible takes, you know, as long as three months, and then once you're eligible, the school needs to send more paperwork stating that, you know, you are taking 15 hours, 12 hours, six hours worth of classes, and that's another three months. And so if you add that up, that may be as long as six months before you receive your benefits.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, we're glad you hung in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So Craig, a final question for you...

Mr. WESTMAN: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: What do you think has been the biggest factor in helping your veterans kind of work their way through the university process? What do you think has made the biggest difference?

Mr. WESTMAN: I know I sound like a broken record when I say that they need to have that advocate who understands all the processes from beginning to end, and that's what we've done in our office, is cross-trained our staff to understand the process from the moment a soldier walks in and wants to apply to the institution to getting them their benefits.

And the other thing that we found too that's very helpful is hiring veterans to also aid our office and processing the paperwork and to be able to explain it to them in their words, and that has been invaluable.

MARTIN: Craig Westman is associate provost for Enrollment at the University of Texas at El Paso. He joined us from El Paso. Former Army Staff Sergeant Jonathan Zapien is now a senior at George Mason University and hopes to benefit from the new GI Bill and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you again for coming. Good luck to you and to your family.

Mr. ZAPIEN: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

MARTIN: And thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. WESTMAN: Thank you.

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