Undergraduates Named Student Veterans of the Year

By Tom McLaughlin

Two Rutgers University–Camden student veterans have been selected by their peers to receive the top student award from the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden.

Anina Tyler of Millville and Drew Bendler of Pennsauken have been named Rutgers–Camden’s outstanding female and male student veterans for 2018. The honor is bestowed annually during Rutgers–Camden’s annual Veterans Day observance.

Anina Tyler

“I am shocked and humbled to earn this award,” says Tyler, an undergraduate social work major who serves as public relations officer for the student veterans group at Rutgers–Camden. “All I’ve done is care for and want to help my fellow student veterans, which is what I hope that others do too.”

Born and raised in Camden, Tyler served from 2012 to 2016 in the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of petty officer third class. An aviation machinist mate, she primarily did engine maintenance and repair on Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. During that time, she also earned an associate’s degree in general studies from a Columbia College location on base.

Arriving at Rutgers–Camden in spring 2016, she admittedly wasn’t aware of the programs and services available to veterans – and with a full-time job and other responsibilities, she didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

“During my first few semesters, all I really did was go to class and go home,” says Tyler, a major accounts fleet data analyst for Auto Plus Auto Parts in Moorestown.

That all changed, however, in spring 2018, when Tyler attended a class with Tracy Huggins, president of the student veterans group at Rutgers–Camden. The two “clicked,” says Tyler, and soon she was learning about the thriving student veteran community on campus, as well as the many resources and programs available to student veterans via the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs on campus.

Soon thereafter, Tyler joined the student veterans group and decided to take on a leadership role. She now creates all promotional material for events and is working on enhancing the group’s social media presence.

“I went from being a fly on the wall to wanting to be involved as much as possible,” says Tyler, who plans to earn a doctorate in social work and work with children or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, says Tyler, she and Huggins share the same vision of developing the student veterans group further and continuing to get the word out to veterans everywhere about all that Rutgers–Camden can do to smooth the transition from active duty to civilian life.

Drew Bendler

“For me, that transition was difficult,” says Tyler. “I am not a traditional student; most of us aren’t. School is something that we have to fit in with many other responsibilities in life. It’s important that other student veterans, especially those who are in situations like mine, know that resources and guidance are available.”

For Bendler, a psychology major minoring in mathematics education, being named male student veteran of the year is nothing short of a dream come true.

“It’s something that I never could’ve imagined four years ago,” he says.

Bendler recalls that, as a young boy, he often rode his bike through the Rutgers–Camden campus with his friends, marveling at the tall buildings that were so unlike those on his street only a mile away. However, he says, actually attending the university always felt out of reach.

“Rutgers–Camden was like a palace that I could walk through, but could never open the door,” he says. “The reality was that this would never happen for me. But then that reality faded away like sand on the beach and it became a dream. And now I’m living the dream.”

Upon graduating from high school, Bendler served his first stint in the U.S. Army from 1983 to 1987. He then returned to southern New Jersey and worked as a mail carrier. In March 2003, he watched on the evening news as the U.S. invaded Iraq and decided then and there to reenlist.

“When the war broke out in Iraq, I said, ‘I’ve got to go back,’” he recalls. “It just felt like something that I had to do.”

Bendler served an additional 10 years in the Army, including 13 months in Iraq, attaining the rank of staff sergeant.

Several years ago, he was receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at a Philadelphia Veterans Affairs hospital when someone suggested that he return to school. Hesitant at first, he enrolled in the Veterans Upward Bound program, which prepares veterans for secondary education, at the University of Pennsylvania. He then earned an associate’s degree in mathematics education from Camden County College before arriving at Rutgers–Camden in spring 2017.

His first day of classes at Rutgers–Camden, Bendler recalls, is one that he’ll never forget.

“It was like the Fourth of July, Christmas, my birthday, and Thanksgiving all in one day,” he says. “It was magical; I was like a little kid at Disney World.”

In addition to his studies, Bendler now does volunteer work and leads a “math boot camp” at the University of Pennsylvania to prepare veterans for secondary mathematics education. At least several times a day, he notes, he makes it a point to talk up Rutgers–Camden and let veterans know the opportunities that await them at the University if they, too, take a chance.

“I tell them, ‘Rutgers-Camden is the place to come; just look at me,’” he says. “I am a well-respected and well-taken-care-of Rutgers–Camden student, and you should follow my lead.”

Bendler plans to continue sharing that message when he fulfills his long-term mission of teaching mathematics to inner-city youth on the middle-school level.

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