Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, colleges and universities have had a greater influx of veterans entering college after serving in a war zone than at any time since The Vietnam War. According to the Center for American Progress (Center for American Progress, Easing the Transition from Combat to Classroom) more than 400,000 veterans enrolled in institutions of higher education for the 2012 spring semester. Many of these veterans are working toward college degrees by taking advantage of the benefits provided to them under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill; according to a Veterans Affairs and accountability report, the United States government by way of this new G.I. bill invested more than $7.7 billion in 2011 alone to fund education and training for 555,000 veterans or their dependents.
However, despite the increased financial support offered by the G.I. Bill as well as an increasing understanding of veterans’ issues on the part of colleges and universities, returning veterans still face unique challenges when it comes to higher education, including navigating complex administrative systems, reintegrating themselves into civilian, social networks, and the obvious challenges brought on by deployment-related disabilities such as PTSD.
Of course, there are many ways in which military service makes veterans ideally suited for college life. If there’s one thing that veterans of the United States military don’t need to be told, it’s how to get to places on time. Or, for that matter, how to stay motivated. In fact, many of the things that can be difficult for a student straight out of high school (time management, work ethic, independence, decision making, etc.) are often a piece of cake for veterans. These students have been trained to be where they need to be, when they need to be there, then buckle down and get the job done, whether that job is searching for IEDs in an abandoned mine in Helmand Province or writing ten pages on Keynesian economics.
Unfortunately, both of those jobs can, at times, seem easier than navigating administrative bureaucracy, especially when one is combining the bureaucracy of a college or university with that of the United States government. Thus, a lot of the support we give to our veterans at my university begins with everyone’s favorite thing: paperwork. It is extremely important to our student veterans that they have a point person at the university who can take care of their paperwork, and they don’t trust just anyone to get it right. That’s why every veteran who comes on to our campus receives a personal advisor. This advisor is familiar with not just university bureaucracy but also the ins and outs of military bureaucracy and the G.I. Bill. Even if a certain add/drop form needs to go to the registrar or a check to the bursar’s office, student veterans will often send an extra copy to their advisor so that they know their paperwork is all in one place and is being overseen by a single person who they know and trust. This process is becoming even more effective and streamlined as more and more of this documentation goes online. When students can click a mouse and see all of their paperwork online, connect to their advisor for questions, and make sure their financial aid is in order, they feel even more relieved and reassured knowing that someone has their back.
While all veterans returning from a deployment or a life in the military go through some sort of soldier-to-civilian readjustment, that social and cultural transition can be felt especially acutely on a college campus. For one thing, some veterans are somewhat or significantly older than their new classmates. Last year, one of our advisors worked with a student veteran who was starting college in his late 30s after having spent twenty years in military. When he and his advisor met he said, “I don’t know how it’s going to feel being in a class full of 20-year olds.” As this particular advisor was also working on a degree at the time, she could relate, and she told him that while he might feel out of place the first few classes, after a week or two he wouldn’t even notice. With others, it’s the wide gulf of experience rather than age that makes it difficult to connect to their peers. The percentage of people on a given college campus who understand what military life is like or have been to war can be very small, and returning veterans can sometimes feel like there’s no one on campus who understands where they are coming from. This can lead students to feel isolated, and as we all know, feelings of social isolation can be detrimental to a student’s chances of staying in school. We have a veterans club on campus, but also, advisors and success coaches can help student veterans transition successfully from soldier to student by connecting them with other veterans, helping to translate the nuances of this new, social world, and simply being someone who will listen and support them as they re-adjust.
Finally, while all of our veterans are in some way changed by their experiences in the military, some return from war more scarred than others. Veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing symptoms of PTSD or traumatic brain injury walk through university doors every day, and it is our job as success coaches and advisors to ensure that they get the resources they need to walk out of those doors wearing caps and gowns. It is our job to make sure that students feel comfortable seeking out psychological services, or telling the people who need to know (professors, friends) what they are going through. One student I worked with only felt comfortable talking about his PTSD to the few professors he knew were also ex-military. Luckily, on the day when a construction crew working on a roof dropped something from a lift, which shattered at a deafening volume upon hitting the road, consequently triggering flashbacks for this particular student, he was in the classroom with one of those few professors.
Student veterans come to college seeking what all college students seek: an education that prepares them for a better, more successful life. It is our job to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure they get it.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.