Fifteen years ago, if you had told Shomari Carter that he would be sitting in a classroom at Saint Mary’s College, he would have laughed. Like every teenager, he thought he knew everything, and he hungered for that first taste of independence. He decided he could find it in the Army.
“I was anti-college since high school,” he said. “I knew if I went to college that I would be a broke college student.” During his time in the Army from 1998 until 2003, he was stationed in Hawaii, Bosnia and Japan. After his tour of duty, he returned to civilian life and eventually found himself thinking about college.
“I always knew education was the key to happiness, but it had not become apparent until I suffered through a few dead-end jobs,” he said.
He chose Saint Mary’s College because of its close-knit community. When he arrived, he found quite a few other veterans among the students on campus. He knew some of them were struggling with the transition from military to student life, so he created a Veterans Club on campus as a way for vets to share their experiences and offer advice on resources. He also organized the College’s first Veterans Mass as a way to honor veterans and increase awareness of their growing numbers on campus.
Since Saint Mary’s adopted the federal Yellow Ribbon Program in 2009, the veteran population has increased from 12 to 34 students.
“Many colleges and universities were hesitant to participate for fear of unknown expenses, but Saint Mary’s took the lead in participating from the start,” said Assistant Registrar Lyone Conner. “The program allows veterans to attend with their tuition fully paid, a housing allowance and with a stipend for books and supplies.”
The Yellow Ribbon Program covers 50 percent of the expenses, while Saint Mary’s College and the Veterans Administration pick up the remaining 50 percent. In order to qualify, veterans must have served at least 36 months of active duty after September 11, 2001.
Carter doesn’t qualify under the program because he only served 18 months after 9/11. Instead he receives assistance through other GI Bills and scholarships. However, senior Tom Dale, who spent eight years as a counterintelligence agent in the army said, “There is no way I could have gone to Saint Mary’s if I didn’t qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program.”
The increase in veterans at SMC is indicative of a larger trend nationwide in which vets are returning from combat and enrolling in college. Support from both the College and peers is important, said Carter, because veterans are instilled with a code of self-reliance, which often keeps them from asking for help.
Carter said the high school version of himself would be surprised by how much he enjoys education today. “I was talking to one of my professors the other day and I told him that I really wanted to read all the textbooks but that I didn’t actually have the time to read every page,” he said. “I never thought I would want to read a textbook.”