The Most Common Struggles Faced by Student Veterans

The Most Common Struggles Faced by Student Veterans

The number of veterans who are becoming college students is on the rise as the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides tuition benefits for an estimated 2 million eligible veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. From a higher education perspective, the transition from military life into an academic setting is not always easy for many veterans. There are challenges that need to be understood, strengths that veteran students can build upon, and resources available to help them make a successful transition into college.

The Initial Transition to College

The following video illustrates the challenges faced by veteran students. Nicholas Hawkins, a veteran who made a college transition and attended the University of Texas, recorded a summary of his experience.

Hawkins discussed his experience and the struggle to find other students he could develop relationships with. One approach taken was to find other veteran students to talk to as they could relate to his experience.

A Washington Post article, Veterans find that their transition from combat to college can be difficult, highlighted the social, academic, psychological and medical challenges faced by veterans as they enter college classrooms. It was noted that “some student veterans say they have little in common with their younger, more sheltered classmates whose concerns typically revolve around their social lives and separating from their parents.”

This same article also addresses veterans being very aware of feeling different, which can also create feelings of isolation. What complicates their adjustment into an academic environment further is being “put on the spot when they are singled out in class by well-meaning faculty members who solicit their views on foreign policy,” and they are “turned off by the unstructured, sometimes frivolous, college atmosphere; and loath to admit they are having difficulty.” As an educator I do not single out students because of their background or ask for personal opinions. I encourage students to develop informed responses through application of their experience, along with information acquired in the course materials and academic research they’ve conducted, to specific discussion question topics.

An Inside Higher Ed article also addressed the culture shock initially faced by veterans when they attend a college class for the first time. One student was quoted as saying that “maybe 95 percent of your peers have no concept of what your life has been like.” I understand this perspective, especially for a college setting as a traditional college student is often defined as someone who makes a transition from high school into college and takes courses on a full-time basis. With minimal real-world or business experience, these students may not be able to easily relate to veterans and that can lead to feelings of isolation for veteran students.

In contrast, veterans may find that an online class makes it easier for them to begin a college degree program, as online schools typically attract non-traditional students or students who are working adults and return to school after having been out of high school for some time. In my online classes I’ve had a variety of students, including students who are either actively serving or recently discharged, along with students who have other types of careers and jobs. The online classroom becomes a melting pot because of the diverse backgrounds and this helps veterans feel included in the learning process rather than strangers in the college environment, which makes it a choice for veterans to consider when deciding on a particular program or school.

Building on Strengths and Developing Connections

A Wall Street Journal article, MBAs Attract Current and Former Soldiers, noted that “with leadership skills honed in battle and experience shouldering far more responsibility than their civilian peers, many former military officers are enrolling in M.B.A. programs to get one of the key attributes they lack—knowledge of the business world.” I agree with that statement only to a certain extent as I have taught business courses to former military officers and soldiers. These students often have a very well-developed sense of how an organization runs – from a military perspective. What they make lack is perspective on non-military organizational environments, which may not be as structured and/or rigid as the military.

There are, however, other strengths that veterans possess, which they can build on to be successful as college students. For example, veterans are highly disciplined and used to a routine through their military career. These skills can be transferred to academic work through setting up a routine for studying and creating a time management plan. In addition, veteran students are often adaptable to new situations and environments, which can be utilized to their advantage because they have less fear or resistance to starting their classwork. Where they often struggle is in developing productive working relationships with other students.

I encourage all veterans not to hide or minimize their background and instead, share their background, new career goals or interests, and perhaps their hobbies or outside interests. This will allow other students to find ways of relating to them, which can then lead to a sense of belonging to the class as they develop working relationships. I’ve observed the difference in responses posted within my online classes when veterans only talk about their military background, in comparison to those that share other aspects about themselves in their introductions. Students read what their classmates post, and if they can find something to relate to, they often post replies to initiate a conversation – regardless of the other students’ military or non-military background.

Resources Available for Veteran Students

It is important for veteran college students to be familiar with resources that are available to assist them when they need support. A very helpful website is the Real Warriors Campaign, launched by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE), which “promotes the processes of building resilience, facilitating recovery and supporting reintegration of returning service members, veterans and their families.” The website offers resources for all veterans, including Five Resources for Returning to School:

Resource #1: Tips from Student Veterans of America
The SVA website provides a Military to College Guide, [PDF] and offers suggestions for making the transition to student life. Here are some of the strategies listed:
•    Start with a few courses to ease the transition
•    Get to know your new professors and ask them for help
•    Recognize that others may not agree with you or understand your military service. Agree to disagree and respectfully decline to answer any questions that make you uncomfortable

Resource #2: Educational and Vocational Counseling

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers free educational and vocational counseling services to transitioning service members.

Resource #3: Vet Centers and VA Medical Centers
In addition to VA’s educational and vocational counseling services, students can contact a local Vet Center or a VA Medical Center for additional support.

Resource #4: Academic Counseling from Veterans Upward Bound
Students can also contact the Veterans Upward Bound Program, which is provided by the Department of Education and designed to help eligible veterans enter and succeed in post-secondary education

Additional Resources:
•    Five Steps Veterans Can Take to Support PTSD Treatment
•    Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Military Personnel [PDF]
•    VA’s website for service members returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also assists students who may be suffering from a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and notes that “if you think you have PTSD, it is important to seek professional help. There are good treatments available for PTSD.” These resources include:
•    VA PTSD Program Locator: A program locator to help find a local VA PTSD program.
•    National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD): The NCPTSD is the VA’s center of excellence for research and education on PTSD and traumatic stress reactions and offers information and resources.

There may also be student organizations available so check with your school to see what may be of interest.

Successful as a College Student

When news reports and articles address the challenges faced by veterans returning to school they are often from the perspective of adapting to a different working environment and not feeling part of the student population due to their background. What are overlooked are the skills that veterans possess that allow them to be highly effective as students. These strengths provide a solid starting point for beginning a degree program. To overcome the initial feelings of disconnection and loneliness it is important for them to find ways of relating to other students through similar career interests and goals so they can develop productive and supportive working relationships. More importantly, whenever further assistance is needed, veteran students will find there are also many resources available to help them get started.  

Photo © Images.com/Corbis

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