Tavia Brightwell wasn’t accustomed to responding to her first name. After four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and two deployments, she answered to “Brightwell” or “Sergeant.”

But there were much bigger hurdles for Tavia, 26, to clear as she transitioned from military life to college life at UNCG. She was older than other freshmen, more mature, more disciplined, more worldly. Fitting in wasn’t easy, especially at first.

“Most of the students came here with a friend base,” she says. “They knew people. I felt alone. I didn’t live on campus. I just came to class and went home.”

Then Tavia, now a Marine Corps reservist, found out about support services for veterans at UNCG, listed by G.I. Jobs as a Military Friendly School. Dedrick Curtis in the Veterans Services office, put her in touch with UNCG’s Student Veterans Association, where she met other veterans struggling with the same issues she was dealing with. UNCG also offers support groups and counseling for veterans, active military and military dependants.

UNCG’s profile on the G.I. Jobs web site lists 430 currently enrolled veterans or active military and 200 military dependents. UNCG’s graduation rate for veterans is strong at 72 percent.

Joining SVA and connecting with students like herself gave Tavia a sense of belonging, she says. “I became more verbal. With the younger freshmen I had a hard time being parallel with them. They’d want to talk about video games and I’d want to tell them about my deployment. They’d worry about where to hang out after class, and I worried about how to fit in with this class.”

Tavia, now on track to graduate in 2014 with a degree in English Education from the School of Education, wants to teach high school English. A native of Winston-Salem, she enrolled at UNCG earlier, fresh out of high school, and left after one semester. Now she often sees her younger self in her classmates.

“They are losing motivation because they can’t focus, and they can’t focus because they don’t really know what they want,” she says. “Before the military, a lot of times I would lose track. I would lose focus and burn out. I could not pick myself up; I couldn’t self motivate. I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now I can pick myself up and get back on track.”

In the Marine Corps, Tavia worked in Aviation Maintenance Administration, overseeing flight records and repair logs for helicopters, especially the MV-22 Osprey. She was deployed to a base in Iraq and saw a second deployment aboard the U.S.S. Mesa Verde.

She still relives her initial experience as a new recruit arriving at Parris Island. Recruits stood at attention on yellow footprints as a line of screaming drill instructors harassed them mercilessly.

“It’s like somebody has opened the gates for an invasion of angry dogs,” she says. “There’s a sense of terror.”

Three other members of Tavia’s Marine unit are now enrolled at UNCG. All four will stand at attention in their dress blues during the National Roll Call held on campus on Veterans Day.

They still call her Sergeant.

Photography by Chris English, University Relations