"I've been here [at Redlands] for three years and I feel almost no connection with the campus. I'm so far disconnected with the kids in my class, it's amazing," Mendieta says. He hasn't met a fellow veteran in class yet. His high school classmates have already rotated through college and launched successful careers, and Mendieta wants to graduate and move on as fast as he can.
"They couldn't build new classrooms fast enough"
The original G.I. Bill, signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, has been called the most successful social program in U.S. history and is often credited for the creation of the middle class. In 1947, when Irv Feinman was a student, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions across the country.
Not many people can claim typing skills saved their life. Feinman's expertise on the Teletype, picked up in Chicago courier offices before World War II, helped him secure a spot in the Army's Signal Corps when most of the men at the volunteer board went to the infantry. Seven men out of the 39 who enlisted alongside him died overseas. Far from the line, Feinman set up his communication equipment in King Victor Emmanuel III's palace in Caserta, Italy, outside Naples. His war was spent in the throne room as Nazi warplanes strafed the Italian countryside.
Shortly after Germany surrendered, Feinman left Italy and returned home to Chicago after a brief messaging job in New York City. A friend from before the war studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he told Feinman they were expecting a lot of veterans to use the newly created education benefit.
Feinman was but a rock in the avalanche of veterans headed straight for Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus. Student veterans there outnumbered civilians in the fall of 1946; six out of 10 students had once served in the military. He recalls a rush to accommodate the unprecedented number of students. "They were scrambling to make room for everyone. They couldn't build new classrooms fast enough," he told me. The veterans on campus, typically four or more years older than civilian classmates, were eager to resume the lives they'd put on hold. But they did it alongside understanding civilians who had watched them come home as heroes of a righteous war, and one in which nearly every family felt some measure of sacrifice.
These days, veterans aren't cramming the admissions office at Urbana-Champaign. No one is concerned about building new dorms or classrooms to head off a glut of returning troops. You might even call them the least visible minority on campus. Though the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that the number of veterans enrolled in college will hit a three-year high, they still aren't a sizable presence. (In sharp contrast with the 1946 numbers, veterans accounted for just one percent of the undergraduate population at Urbana-Champaign in 2011.) Not surprisingly, two long, unpopular wars fought by an all-volunteer force, on behalf of a thankful yet unburdened public, have produced second-order effects. Civilian students are often unaware of their peers who have wartime experience, and veterans often conceal their pasts from those who might not understand them.