SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When Matt Teigen enrolled in college in 2009 after six years in the Air Force, the transition wasn't easy.
"I was very hard-headed and thought I could do it alone," he said.
Amid a sea of 18-year-olds, he felt out of place and missed the camaraderie of military service. He failed one of his first classes.
But then he remembered an email about the new Veterans Resource Center at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He now spends time there almost every day during the school year, socializing with other veterans and getting academic help.
"Had I not had that resource center, I probably would have dropped out," Teigen said.
With the war in Afghanistan winding down, more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers are returning home over the next two years. Many of them will be enrolling in college for the first time, taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which covers the full cost of four years of in-state tuition and fees, plus money for housing and books.
Last year, 555,329 students used Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, up from 365,640 the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The enrollment boom has South Dakota colleges ramping up support services for students with war experience.
"We are going to be slammed with veterans. We want to be ready for them," said Cathy Payne, who coordinates the VRC at the School of Mines.
During its meeting Wednesday and today in Pierre, the South Dakota Board of Regents is considering a staff recommendation to seek a one-time, $600,000 appropriation from the Legislature next year to boost veteran services. If approved, each of the six public university campuses could apply for a portion of the money, as long as they match it with dollars from their own budgets.
Regents President Kathryn Johnson said last week that she supports the overall goal, but she's unsure the one-time appropriation is the best way to accomplish it.
"I do think that the board really recognizes the need to improve some of the facilities available for veterans," she said.
Regents staff outlined several possible uses for the money:
— Creating or enhancing a dedicated web page for veterans on the university's site;
— Creating support groups;
— Creating pre-admission counseling services;
— Training staff on the special classroom needs of veterans;
— Creating an orientation specific to veterans; and
— Updating an on-campus meeting place for veterans.
The School of Mines, recognized as one of the most veteran-friendly colleges in the country, is serving as a model for the state's other public university campuses. That's partly because of its Veterans Resource Center, a study lounge where Payne said about 45 students are regulars.
Ryan Brown, a 29-year-old Army veteran studying computer engineering at the School of Mines, enrolled in January 2010, two months after the center opened. He said veterans gather there often to socialize, tutor one another and cram for tests using whiteboards that line the walls.
Brown said veterans tend to be more serious students, focused more on careers than partying.
"We're older, trying to go to school with a bunch of 18- to 23-year olds. It's great to have a place we can go with people who are like-minded," he said. "It's amazing for academics. And for the social aspect, it's really hard to find the camaraderie you get in the military."
The Regents' budget request comes in response to a survey conducted last fall of 207 students who are veterans. Overall, 83 percent said faculty and staff are sensitive to their needs; the School of Mines earned the highest satisfaction ratings and Northern State University the lowest.
Topping the veterans' wish list were special academic advising for veterans and a standalone veterans resource center.
Already, some campuses have added personnel specific to veteran students.
Brian Mahaffy was hired in June as South Dakota State University's veteran affairs coordinator, a new position. He's since visited the School of Mines and wants to replicate its success.
"They have a great program," he said. "That's what we want here, and that's what we're working toward."
SDSU has a temporary resource center in the university's multicultural center, but Mahaffy wants it to get a permanent home. A veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mahaffy said veterans are reluctant to ask for help with their studies or personal problems, and a dedicated meeting place will make them more comfortable about opening up.
The University of South Dakota created its director of veteran services position in February 2011, hiring Jason Dean. He helps students understand the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which he said was a huge step for the university.
"You have an idea that you have benefits, but you have no idea what they are," Dean said.
If the $600,000 appropriation moves forward, Dean wants to see USD host special events for veterans, such as seminars and bringing in experts on post-traumatic stress disorder.
SDSU is among the schools looking to tailor new student orientation to veterans.
"Being an 18-year-old traditional student is very different from being a 25-year-old veteran," said Janice Minder, student affairs officer for the Board of Regents.
A new state law will make South Dakota colleges particularly attractive to students from other states. Sioux Falls Republican Sen. Mark Johnston's Senate Bill 80 waived the requirement that veterans live in the state for at least one year before getting in-state tuition rates.
"That was really exciting for all of us," said Brown, who lived in Wyoming before enrolling at the School of Mines.
Johnston, who's also a colonel in the Army Reserve, has been pushing for improvements in services for veteran students. He said other states already have made their colleges more attractive to veterans. "In some ways, we're playing catch up," he said, "but I'm really pleased we're going on the track we are."
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com