In May, 2005, Army Spec. Travis Fugate was seriously injured by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Iraq. It took out his right eye and damaged the retina of his left, bruised his brain and crushed the bones in his face.
Fugate had enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard in 2003 for the usual reasons: patriotism, adventure, money for college. Sixteen months later, his military service ended suddenly. A long period of rehabilitation followed, “learning to be blind – learning how to participate in society as a blind person,” he says.
While at the Hines Blind Center near Chicago – where veterans receive training in skills they need to regain their independence – he made a decision to “connect to education” and reached out to Sentinels of Freedom, an organization that provides opportunities for veterans who have suffered severe injuries.
“They made it happen for me,” Fugate says.
Sentinels of Freedom has a community in Monterey; through them, he learned about the area and the university, visited CSUMB in August 2009 and decided to make the move.
People from across campus came together to meet with him – including the veterans’ support team, a staff member from Student Disability Resources, an admissions counselor and faculty members from the computer science department, his intended major.
“They showed a willingness to work with me. And I didn’t find that at other schools,” Fugate said. “After that meeting, I felt confident that CSUMB had a staff that cared about my passion and about helping me to reach my goals. It was an easy decision to come here.”
After two years at Monterey Peninsula College, Fugate transferred to CSUMB this semester. His veterans’ benefits cover most of his expenses; Sentinels of Freedom covers whatever else he needs.
He’s an example of why the university has been named a “Veteran Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs magazine for four straight years.
The magazine honors the top 15 percent of colleges and universities that are doing the most to embrace America’s military members and veterans as students. It polled more than 12,000 schools.
Among CSUMB’s military-friendly practices are web pages with information specifically for veterans; a designated veterans services liaison, Giselle Young; a Student Veterans Organization; and a campus support team to help veterans make the transition from active duty to an educational environment.
Young says her role is “to troubleshoot various campus services. Each office, such as housing and other support services, has a staff member who works with veterans – both perspective and continuing students.”
This semester, CSUMB has 96 students receiving educational benefits under the G.I. Bill, and 63 of them are receiving the new Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefit, which helps pay tuition as well as a monthly housing stipend and book allowance.
Another 25 students are eligible for the Federal VA Dependents Educational Assistance program as dependents of deceased or disabled veterans. The state of California also offers a tuition waiver to dependents of deceased or disabled veterans; 112 students are currently using this program at CSUMB.
Fugate lives in Monterey and takes the bus to school, accompanied by his service dog, Mr. Fess. “He’s got more friends on campus than I have,” Fugate says. “Students who miss their dogs back home are drawn to him.”
He’s chosen a particularly difficult course of study – computer science with an emphasis in software engineering.
“I was always interested in computers, but I was intimidated by it. But when I lost my vision, I realized there’s this whole community of blind and disabled people who are trying to access the same information that I used to access before I lost my vision. I’ve developed a passion to serve the blind community that I’m now a part of,” he says.
Before being asked, he volunteered that he uses a regular computer and iPhone with voice output features. “Everyone always wants to know that,” he says.
He’s planning to graduate in May 2014. And then, “I want to do what I can to help tech companies reach accessibility goals.”
He’s not the only one who wants to help.
Says Young: “I would like to do this 100 percent of the time. The people who do this work are passionate about it. It’s very satisfying.”
Story by Joan Weiner. Photo by Kevin Garcia: Travis Fugate and his service dog, Mr. Fess, at CSUMB