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Soldiers’ education will not be derailed

Chris Chandler was lucky to get back to Gainesville, Fla., in time to start the fall semester at the University of Florida. Hurricane Charley gave the 23-year-old specialist with the Florida National Guard an answer for “how I spent my summer vacation,” but he was on campus when classes started Aug. 23.

Then Frances hit, followed by Ivan and Jeanne in rapid succession. There were some short breaks, but in all Chandler figures he spent more than 40 days handing out water or directing traffic instead of attending classes in psychology, accounting and art history.

He withdrew from school.

“I knew once we were gone there was no way I’d be able to catch up on the work I missed,” said Chandler, a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 116th Field Artillery in his hometown of Lakeland.

But even before the fall term began, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had already ensured that more than 1,000 student-soldiers helping the state recover from hurricane season would not have their education derailed.

“Many members of the Guard were enrolled in postsecondary education courses at the time of their activation,” Bush wrote in a letter on Aug. 20 to university presidents throughout the state. “I want to be sure that upon their deactivation, they do not suffer any academic or financial detriment in pursuit of another of the state’s highest priorities, a postsecondary education.”

Bush used statutory authority to order that student-soldiers could either complete their courses at a later date without penalty or withdraw from them and receive a full refund. He also ordered deadlines for tuition payments be extended by at least 90 days for National Guard members.

“The good part is we don’t get penalized at all,” said Chandler, who works for Publix Super Markets during the day and has a security job at night. Getting financial help with school was his biggest reason for joining the National Guard, so he plans to resume his pursuit of an engineering degree in the spring.

Often finding out about a deployment the night before made it a challenge just to keep the school informed of his status, Chandler said. His unit worked in the state in Fort Myers, St. Lucie, Pensacola and most recently in Polk County.

The governor’s action seems to have worked. It took less than five minutes to fill out the withdrawal paperwork, and Chandler has received his refund.

At least a couple dozen University of Florida students were activated for the hurricanes, but the school is not tracking how many have withdrawn, university spokesman Steve Orlando said. The University of Central Florida reported six withdrawals for National Guard duty, and Lake-Sumter Community College had two.

Bush repeated his call for flexibility from the universities Oct. 8, the date by which all student-soldiers were supposed to be released from active duty.

Andy Rusnak, who oversees the Educational Dollars for Duty and the State Tuition Exemption Program for the Florida National Guard, said 1,055 of the guard members enrolled in the program this fall had been activated for at least one of the storms. He knew of 10 who had withdrawn from school but expected to hear of more as they deactivated and assessed their academic options.

“We’re still trying to gauge the impact; we’re still winding down,” Rusnak said.

About 600 guard members receive aid through the Federal Tuition Assistance program overseen by guidance counselor Sgt. Maj. John Hill.

Hill estimated that most had been activated for the hurricanes, but he knew of only three who had withdrawn for the semester.

“We tried whenever possible to excuse them to go back to school,” Hill said. “We’re pushing hard with schools to give them every break.”

Dennis Dulniak, UCF’s registrar, said the school is working with its student-soldiers to keep their education on track.

“We want to treat people the way we would want to be treated in that situation,” he said.

Ten guard members contacted Dulniak’s office about their options, and six of them withdrew. He said there could be more who dropped classes without giving their Guard service as the reason.

“At this point in the semester, they may be too far beyond the point of recovery for the term,” Dulniak said. The students are counseled on their options on a case-by-case basis. “Some of these students have families, have other jobs they’ve been working-they don’t have the time,” he said.

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