Student Finds a Home After the Military at Saint Mary’s

New Club and Special Mass Highlight an Increase in Veterans on Campus 

Veterans BBQ

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 that in the Army.

“I was anti-college since high school. I was always bored in school and I didn’t feel like it was the route for me,” he says. “I knew if I went to college that I would be a broke college student. The military would pay me and I wouldn’t have to rely on my mother.”

During his time in the Army from 1998 until 2003, he was stationed in Hawaii and served in Bosnia and Japan.  By the end of his tour of duty, he realized he had reached a ceiling in his position in the infantry, so he returned to civilian life. He bounced around between jobs—starting a silkscreen business, working at a bank and selling cars.                                                                                          Shomari Carter (top row, left) with other student veterans 

“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 says.

He chose Saint Mary’s College because of its inclusivity and close-knit community.

When he arrived, he found a growing number of veteran students on campus. Since Saint Mary’s instituted 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,” says 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. Veterans who do not meet these qualifications receive tuition assistance through other GI bills such as the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Carter does not qualify under the Yellow Ribbon 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 says, “There is no way I could have gone to Saint Mary’s if I didn’t qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program.”

In addition to the aid from the GI bills, a few Saint Mary’s students benefit from financial assistance through the ROTC program. Saint Mary’s is an affiliate school of UC Berkeley’s Army ROTC program. 

The increase in military veterans at the College is indicative of a larger trend nationwide in which veterans are returning from combat and enrolling in college as the government withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of these students are older and bring with them life experiences that are in direct contrast to the young students who are just starting out on their own.

Carter has a very different life perspective from most of his classmates. On the most defining moment in recent history, September 11, he was in his third year in the Army. Most of the students in his classes were in elementary school, too young to remember life before the attacks. They have never really known a world without the constant threat of terrorism and widespread security measures.

“I see all the changes that have been made since 9/11 and the freedoms that we have given up,” says Carter. “A lot of students have grown up and not known those certain freedoms which are now lost. They don’t even think about it…the things that have changed forever.”

Carter knew there were other members of the Saint Mary’s community who 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.

“Sometimes veterans are suffering from a lot of different things—post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or illnesses.  Just knowing someone is there and understands you is important.”

The support from peers is important because veterans have been instilled with a code of self-reliance, which often keeps them from asking for help.

“As a veteran, I often struggle and never ask for or seek out help that is readily available,” says Carter. “The military teaches you perseverance and adaptation. You are charged with a mission and the task of figuring it out, with little or no support.”

He says it is important for institutions to reach out to veterans and let them know that resources are available and that college is an option.

Carter recently received attention for organizing the College’s first Veterans Mass. He saw it as a way to honor veterans and increase awareness of their growing numbers in the College community. The Mass, he says, was also a good opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Veteran’s Day.

Carter says 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 says. “I never thought I would want to read a textbook.”

By Kathryn Geraghty ’12