Fairfield Now - Summer 2009
Veterans have played a big part in Fairfield's history. A new tuition program ensures they will play a role in the future.
By Nina M. Riccio
George Baehr was 19 when he enlisted in the Army. He spent the next few years in France and Germany before entering Fairfield.
Fairfield was a two-building campus back in 1949, when George Baehr '51 took the bus down from Waterbury to finish the degree he began before World War Two interrupted him.
Like so many others in his class of 300, he was a mature, older student, well aware of his good fortune at being able to get a college education courtesy of the GI Bill. In fact, 40 percent of his classmates were veterans, a percentage that was mirrored in other classes of that era, as young men returned home from Europe and Japan and took advantage of the GI Bill in huge numbers.
Sixty years later, Fairfield is still welcoming veterans. These days, the government's tuition program is called the Post 9/11 GI Bill; Fairfield University, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has recently made the commitment to cover the gap between the dollar amount the GI Bill pays and the full cost of a Fairfield tuition, plus a book stipend, for those veterans qualifying for full benefits. Fairfield's new Veterans Pride Program takes effect beginning with students enrolling in fall 2009.
"Fairfield is making this deep commitment of University financial aid to veterans in recognition of their service to our country, but also knowing we are investing in the future of exemplary citizens," noted University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. "We look forward to welcoming them to our campus."
Unlike traditional undergraduates, veterans returning to school tend to know what they want to be when they grow up. "They're extremely focused. Their questions are all practical. They want to know what they qualify for, and what the requirements of their program are," said Sheila McEnery, associate director of graduate admission and the go-to person for vets inquiring about Fairfield. While there are far fewer veterans on campus today than there were in George Baehr's day, the eight that are here are scattered in many different programs throughout the University - from those completing college degrees through University College, to those getting a master's in math or business, and a couple in Fairfield's Second Degree Nursing program. "Several vets have inquired about nursing after doing EMT service in the military," noted McEnery.
A few of the University's Korean War veterans gathered in 1953 for a Mass of thanksgiving and peace.
Vic Abrunzo '70 freely admits he benefited from the direction the military gave him. Back in the 1960s, he began life at Fairfield as an accounting major - his father's choice, not his. It was part patriotic duty mixed with a healthy dose of adolescent rebellion that made him quit school and run off to join the Air Force during the height of the Vietnam War.
"My experience during the war was fantastic; I was very fortunate," he said. "I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, and had a regular day job as a cost accountant, and later as an industrial engineer." Asked how his time in the military changed him, he didn't hesitate. "I got ready to face life, and it became clear to me that I wanted to finish my degree." Finish it he did, returning to Fairfield, living in a dorm, and graduating with a degree in finance - all while still on active duty.
Not that Abrunzo's transition was without a few bumps. "I was walking around campus in uniform just after Kent State happened," he recalled, referencing the May 1970 tragedy when the National Guard shot students protesting the war. Though Abrunzo had to endure "some verbal nonsense," from other students because of his uniform, he recognized it as free speech. "I had been at Travis and watched pallets of coffins come back from Vietnam. The idea that some 18 year-olds on campus were going to get me into a fight because of their beliefs - not happening," he said.
British-born Andrea Robinson, due to graduate from Fairfield's Second Degree Nursing program in August, spent four years in the Marines, becoming an American citizen in the process.
Andrea Robinson spent four years in the U.S. Marines before coming to Fairfield to study in the School of Nursing.
"I really like Fairfield," said Robinson. "The professors know we've sacrificed a lot to be here, and they really want us to succeed."
Initially, after her service she was enrolled at a university in New Orleans, "but I had to leave after a little storm named Katrina came through," she said. Robinson's choice of Fairfield's Second Degree program allows her to reconnect with veterans during her clinical rotations at VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven, which has had a long-standing relationship with Fairfield's School of Nursing. "There's an unspoken bond I feel with the guys (at the VA Hospital). We have a shared experience," said Robinson, who is considering joining the staff of the VA after graduation.
In general, veterans bring a different sensibility to the classroom. "Time in the military gives you a sort of perspective of being a part of something bigger than you," Robinson mused. "It's not about individuality, but about teamwork. Your success depends on the bigger picture." And that attitude helps to make these students a success in the classroom as well as in life.
"So many of our early graduates who studied under the GI Bill used their education to make significant contributions to their families and communities," said Fr. von Arx. George Baehr, for example, earned a doctoral degree and came back to Fairfield for almost 29 years - this time as a professor of European and American history. Vic Abrunzo went on to earn an MBA and a law degree, and spent years in the field of vocational education; he's now working with a women's prison, helping to provide perspective on how prison procedures affect an inmate's family.
For more information about Fairfield's Veterans Pride Program, see www.fairfield.edu/veterans.