Grad student at USM in Portland helps veterans adjust to college life

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PORTLAND — After leaving the U.S. Air Force, Camden Ege anticipated a career in law enforcement.

Instead, the University of Southern Maine graduate student is in a zone.

Specifically the Green Zone, the campus outreach group Ege leads to help veterans become acclimated to campus life while students, faculty and other campus staff get a better understanding of what veterans may need while pursuing degrees.

“Veterans are pretty bad at asking for help. I know when I meet with them, they are getting the kind of help and direction they want,” Ege said Nov. 3.

A Sanford native who spent much of his active duty at a base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Ege said college was not something he thought about when he was in high school.

“I enlisted as a lifer,” he said. “I thought I would stay in and retire at 38, live a good life.”

In 2013, however, he decided against re-enlisting, and to go to college.

“I thought I was so proactive, being on duty thousands of miles away, applying for school,” he said.

He arrived on campus that fall as his younger brother, Craig Ege, was about to be deployed with the U.S. Army National Guard. In passing, Craig gave Camden more advice and guidance on what would be a rough first semester.

“It was just lucky I had a brother who knew this,” Ege said about learning where to apply for his veterans benefits and that he could change courses he had picked during orientation.

His first semester of night classes was a big change.

“Definitely the hardest thing was the loss of authority and respect,” Ege said. “I went from having a good-paying job where people looked up to me for answers. I sat in a college classroom and there were 18-year-olds doing way better than me.”

Learning the basics about campus life is knowledge Ege wants to share with veterans, while also sharing perspectives about veterans with others.

“My main point of advocacy (is) I don’t want people to think of veterans as broken,” he said.

Lorrie Spaulding, who coordinates USM Veterans Services, said USM had more than 330 veterans, active military personnel or reservists enrolled in the 2015-2016 year. That’s more than any other public or private college or university in the state.

The bulk of those were between 24 and 30, a good fit in a nontraditional campus where the average student age is 27, Spaulding said. A quarter worked full time, and 78 percent were enrolled as full-time students.

When Ege arrived on campus, Spaulding was also new to the job. The Green Zone was getting established as a capstone project for an Americorps volunteer, she said.

After his first semester, Ege added a major in leadership and organization studies to his criminology major. His visit to the campus Veterans Resource Center added to his transformation.

Spaulding said she soon asked Ege to lead one of the two-hour Green Zone training sessions, a mix of PowerPoint visuals and personal testimony. He was ready.

“I have no problem talking to people, and they listen,” he said.

Ege said the regimented military lifestyle can teach time management and organization skills to veterans, but applying them as students can be a challenge in civilian life.

“College is rigid. There is a structure, but it is all self-imposed,” he said. “You have to switch from someone telling you how to spend your day to doing it on your own.”

Ege has also taken the Green Zone off campus, joining USM officials in a peer training program last spring at the University of Michigan. In January 2017, he will be part of a presentation team at the Student Veterans of America conference in Anaheim, California, Spaulding said.

Ege said he may yet get to a career in law enforcement, but is enjoying this opportunity now.

“I graduated last spring. I have my degree,” he said. “I walked across the stage, but I loved USM and the veterans so much, here I am again.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Graduate student Camden Ege served six years in the U.S. Air Force and now helps other veterans make the transition to college life at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

The Green Zone emblem at USM indicates where faculty and staff have taken training to better understand military veterans.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.