Ben Barrontine, a sergeant first class in the Alabama National Guard, comes from a long line of soldiers — and Auburn fans. After serving in the infantry and with a special operations unit, deploying all around the world, and fulfilling his ambition to serve, Ben realized a dream 10 years in the making — he enrolled at Auburn University.
“I’ll never forget my first day as a student,” he said. “I got here around 6:30 a.m. because I couldn’t sleep — I was so excited. Auburn was the only place I had ever wanted to go to college. As I walked down Donahue, the sun was coming up around campus. I stopped to take it in because it was absolutely perfect, just like I’d always imagined it would be.”
Generations of student veterans like Ben have walked Auburn’s campus, replacing their military rucksacks with backpacks. Described as nontraditional students, they are on average 10 to 15 years older than typical college students, and unlike most 18-year-olds, have garnered a lifetime of experiences before they walk into an Auburn classroom.
Ben’s first day encapsulates one of the extraordinary things about student veterans — they have a deep appreciation for the privilege of being at Auburn. Most of them have had a less-than-direct path to the university. Deployments, training, and family responsibilities often lead veterans to put their education on the back burner. Because of this, their gratitude for the Auburn student experience runs deep, but so does their need for extra support and resources.
That’s where the Auburn Veterans Resource Center (AVRC) comes in. The AVRC helps student veterans balance classes with families, jobs, and, for some, service-related trauma and disabilities. But it’s the unofficial role the center plays in bridging the gap between their days of military service and their current lives at Auburn that resonates most with students like Ben.
“It’s easy for people to feel isolated when they’re surrounded by students who are a lot younger, with different life experiences, and who communicate so differently,” he said. “But once student veterans visit the center, they get it.”
And they’re not the only ones. Donors like U.S. Air Force veteran and aerospace engineering graduate Walt Woltosz, and his wife, Ginger, also recognize the distinctive needs of student veterans and the importance of resources uniquely tailored to them. The Woltoszes recently made a generous investment in the future of the AVRC and student veterans at Auburn.
“These men and women are my heroes,” Walt said. “You just have to meet them one time to know there’s something special about them, about their community, and their commitment to Auburn and to our country.”
Ben will graduate in May and embark on an invitation-only opportunity — training to work in federal law enforcement. Some of his most meaningful experiences are those from his time on the Plains. Last year, he welcomed his father, a retired U.S. Army colonel with more than 30 years of service, into the ranks of student veterans at Auburn.
“My dad’s service has had a huge impact on me,” Ben said. “He was stationed at the Pentagon on 9/11, so obviously that really affected me as a kid. But also, I grew up wanting to be G.I. Joe and my favorite movie was John Wayne’s ‘Green Beret.’ A lot of that was because of my dad.”
The elder Barrontine is pursuing an Executive MBA through the Harbert College of Business and will graduate in 2021. He was present when Ben was honored as the “Game Day Hero” during the 2019 Iron Bowl.
“We were on the field together — father and son,” he said. “Both of us veterans and both of us Auburn students. It was one of those experiences I’ll never forget.”