GI Bill helps Marine graduate from WWU
Ramiro Espinoza's father often told his son that he had five career options: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force and the Coast...
Seattle Times higher education reporter
University graduations this weekend
University of Washington: About 4,100 students and 39,000 family members are expected to attend the UW ceremony, which begins 1:30 p.m. today at Husky Stadium. Musician Quincy Jones is keynote speaker. The event can be seen live on UWTV — Channel 27 in much of the Puget Sound area, or online at www.uwtv.org. Ceremonies for UW Bothell begin 2 p.m. Sunday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Western Washington University: About 1,750 undergraduates and 140 master's students will receive degrees in ceremonies beginning at 9 a.m. today in Western's Carver Gymnasium. Seattle Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln will be keynote speaker.
Seattle University: About 1,200 undergraduates and more than 700 graduate students will receive degrees during a program beginning 9:30 a.m. Sunday at Qwest Field. Honorary degrees also will be given to the Sisters of Providence and Seattle Community Colleges Chancellor Charles Mitchell.
Ramiro Espinoza's father often told his son that he had five career options: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
Growing up in Kennewick, Espinoza's family didn't have much money, and the teen's horizons seemed limited. So right out of high school, he signed up with the Marine Corps. He went on to serve in Guantánamo Bay and Iraq.
Espinoza enlisted with a plan. He wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill, which has helped veterans get college educations since World War II. Today, 10 years after he enlisted and five years after he left the Marines, Espinoza will graduate from Western Washington University as student-body president, with degrees in anthropology and political science.
But exactly how well veterans like Espinoza will be covered in the future is at the center of a controversy in Washington, D.C. There is bipartisan support in Congress to increase GI Bill benefits from about $1,100 to $1,700 a month, as part of the latest Iraq War funding bill. Many argue the benefits haven't kept pace with fast-rising college costs.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill. One of the fears raised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates is that relaxing eligibility requirements and offering more generous benefits could lead to an exodus from the military. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a Vietnam veteran, also opposes the bill. He has released his own pared-back version.
In this state, Espinoza, 28, is one of more than 4,500 students benefiting from the GI Bill. That number rises to nearly 8,000 when disabled vets, dependents and reservists are added. Last year, benefits to those students totaled $114 million, ranking Washington ninth in the nation for money distributed, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The number of people who receive benefits in Washington has fallen by 5 percent over the past five years as reservists have been activated to Iraq. But educators expect a significant increase in student veterans when troops start returning from Iraq in large numbers.
A strong work ethic
Espinoza developed a strong work ethic at a young age, working 20 hours a week at a printing company while a junior at Kamiakin High School.
After joining the Marines, Espinoza went to boot camp in San Diego, and then on to Cuba. The Marines, perhaps noticing his good high-school grades, picked him to serve in intelligence. Espinoza's dad died the year after he enlisted.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Espinoza was moved to Egypt and Kuwait. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, he was sent to Iraq twice on short missions before leaving the military altogether in August of that year.
A month later, Espinoza moved into the Fairhaven dorms, adjacent to WWU's Fairhaven College, known for its drum circles and hippie culture. It couldn't have been more different from the Marine barracks, said Rob Marshall, the coordinator of Western's Veteran's Outreach Center.
But Espinoza, who plays guitar, seemed to find his way.
"It is a different culture," he said. "But I was the least militarylike person in the military. The transition was not as hard for me as it was for other folks."
Espinoza said many vets find the culture change on campus hard to deal with and don't advertise their past. There is, he said, strong sentiment against the Iraq War. But Espinoza said he doesn't mind engaging people in discussion, so long as it's respectful. His personal view is that the invasion of Iraq, in retrospect, was a mistake, but that the U.S. needs to take great care in withdrawing.
One of his fondest memories from Western is a three-month trip he took through Europe with friends in 2004 — the first time he'd traveled overseas for fun. The adventure set him back financially, however, and he left school for the remainder of the year to earn money by designing databases.
For a while, Espinoza thought he might want to become a doctor. But then he fell in love with political systems.
Mark Iozzi, the student-body president last year, came across Espinoza when the veteran was speaking on campus about his experiences in the military. They remained friends, and Iozzi, who now works for Sen. Maria Cantwell, encouraged Espinoza to run for student-body president.
"He had goals in mind for the school and was willing to advocate for those goals even if it meant some conflict," Iozzi said. "He had the integrity to stick by his positions. I think that's the real job of a student leader. It shouldn't be just to pad your résumé and get experience."
As president, Espinoza helped students come up with a plan to sell more organic food on campus, worked with the WWU Foundation to withdraw investments from Sudan, helped arrange a solar-panel demonstration project, and was part of the search committee that recommended hiring new WWU President Bruce Shepard.
In his academic life, he has worked as a research assistant with Amir Abedi, a political-science associate professor.
"He is a very interesting guy," Abedi said. "He really cares deeply about the issues he gets excited about."
Espinoza said he plans to study for a doctorate and then perhaps become a professor himself. And he hopes that returning Iraq vets will get the same opportunity for a college education as he did.
"These people are taking care of us and doing what we are asking from them," Espinoza said. "We need to find the best way to take care of them that we can. Those are the values we need to support as a country."
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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