There’s an old saying that the armed forces do an excellent job of training a soldier for war, but aren’t quite as exceptional at preparing a soldier to come home. It’s natural for the armed services to be concerned about a soldier’s survival on the battlefield, since that’s their primary responsibility. However, many veterans and service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are choosing to embark on a familiar journey: college.
While we may be used to thinking of college in terms of the challenges of dorm rooms, cafeteria food, and all-nighters, the challenges that confront veterans and service members seeking a new career can be quite different. Often, veterans and service members have unique experiences – and are combatting unique challenges – that can make college a particularly daunting activity.
In general, post-secondary education has improved its handling of what are called nontraditional students that do not follow the mold of the stereotypical high school to college transition. In fact, student bodies are so diverse today that most institutions do not use the term nontraditional anymore. They recognize that every student is unique and comes to college with individual hardships to confront. For veterans, these challenges may be more acute.
So, do vets succeed in college? Given the right set of circumstances and the right support structure, many veterans find themselves up to the challenge. In the end, veterans can succeed in college, paving a way not only for a new career, but also for a new path in life.
Unique Challenges for Veterans in College
In Afghanistan and Iraq, members of the armed services were employed in a wide variety of tasks, from combat missions, to community outreach, to convoy duty. To say that we owe the men and women of our armed forces a debt is an understatement. It’s not surprising, then, that when a veteran does not receive the help or attention needed for success in the civilian world, it is extremely disappointing.
To be sure, many colleges and universities have become much more proficient at spotting and alleviating some of the unique challenges encountered by armed services personnel and veterans who are attending classes. Veterans in college tend to have a great deal more life experience than their more traditional classmates. Not only are they older, but also they come from a much different set of experiences. This rift between an 18-year-old high school graduate and a combat-trained veteran can show in a variety of ways, including simple class discussions, where a freshman might say something insensitive about the conduct of war. The veteran, recalling a friend lost in combat, may find him or herself suddenly angry and argumentative – or may simply walk out of the classroom, losing out on vital class experience.
Veterans may also face a wide variety of real-life challenges that many other students don’t face: transportation to classes, paying rent and bills, and balancing a demanding job while simultaneously attending school. Although the armed services try to prepare veterans for life after service, there is undoubtedly some culture shock in adjusting to life inside academia.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other battlefield traumas (Traumatic Brain Injury, for example) that sometimes may remain undiagnosed compound many of these challenges. Indeed, many veterans complain about headaches, difficulty concentrating, and problems remembering information. This may help explain why veterans complete four years of undergraduate schooling at a rate 51.7 percent lower than their more traditional counterparts. However, this does not mean that veterans should avoid college. Some colleges have proved themselves much more adept at handling these unique challenges. Indeed, according to new research, veterans are doing better in terms of completion than other nontraditional students.
Can Vets Succeed in College?
Helping veterans succeed in college is the job of two entities. On the one hand, there are some things the veteran or service member can do to ease the transition. On the other hand, colleges that take seriously the individual challenges of veterans are much better positioned to offer the kind of help that can make a big difference to a struggling student.
Veterans in college are often counseled to give themselves plenty of time to prepare for the transition. There’s an adjustment to a lack of chain of command and of becoming the boss of your own day. Veterans are often reminded that finding time to study and complete assignments is now within their realm of responsibility. It’s certainly a shift and one where colleges can help, especially in the form of subtle reminders from understanding instructors or a frequent checkup from student services.
Because socialization is also a large part of the college experience, veterans are encouraged to socialize in two different ways. Many college campuses offer a venue for veterans groups, a place for veterans to meet and to hang out. It’s important for veterans and service members to be around people with like experiences and similar challenges, if only to exchange coping mechanisms and study habits. It’s often quite helpful to see someone else conquering the same challenges.
Veterans only make up a small portion of the overall population, so many veterans are also counseled to spend some time getting to know the civilian population. It might seem a little silly, but making friends helps. It provides a support system and can help with some of the unexpected college road bumps, especially in academia. It also emphasizes a simple fact: Veterans are civilians, too.
Of course, there are some steps that colleges can take to help veterans succeed. First among these steps is the simple recognition of some of the special challenges that veterans face. A concrete recognition of this step is often the best way to illustrate a commitment to veterans. For example, student services staff who are specially trained to help veterans and service members, can navigate school bureaucracy, perhaps even hiring a veteran to fulfill that role.
Establishing designated groups for veterans and service members is another strategy that colleges and universities often employ to make the transition to college easier for veterans. While almost every student on a college campus gets advising services, offering veteran students individualized coaching is another way that colleges can show they understand the unique challenges of these students.
As mentioned above, veterans often face additional challenges, particularly when it comes to interacting with fellow students in a classroom setting. Crowds, in particular, can be challenging for combat veterans. Selecting a smaller college campus with smaller-sized classrooms may be a good way to mitigate some of that anxiety, but this should not come at the cost of a robust support system for veterans.
Veteran students may also want to consider fast-track programs; that is, career-oriented programs that tend to graduate students more quickly than the traditional four-year school. By emphasizing the career path instead of countless required general classes, veterans are shown a light at the end of the tunnel. Time in class feels less like wheel-spinning and more like taking steps towards an end goal: a new career and a firm place in the civilian world.
Yet, the opposite end of the spectrum must also be honored. Sometimes veterans can have exceptional difficulty completing programs in a short amount of time due to many different circumstances. Reservists could be called to active duty or might require additional training time and this could impact study time. Finding an institution that is sympathetic to these unique challenges can be the difference between graduating quickly and taking more time.
That said, veterans have an amazingly robust attitude, especially when it comes to meeting challenges. This means that while it may take some veterans longer to graduate, they still do. So it’s important that veterans and members of the armed services give themselves permission to take things slow when they need to. It takes time to meet the challenges of day-to-day life and sometimes that takes away from time available for school. Taking education at a slower pace may be the best way to meet the various challenges veterans face while attending school.
There are unique challenges for women soldiers who, despite fighting for freedom with just as much vigor and commitment as their male counterparts, find it difficult to generate the same amount of acceptance. Female veterans often find themselves feeling isolated, not quite a member of the civilian population and not quite a fully confirmed member of the so-called band of brothers. It’s important for female veterans and service members to select a college that has ample support, perhaps one that even seeks out veterans in order to offer special help and services.
Ask for Help
Veterans are often much more likely to ask for help when it comes to physical injuries than they are for mental hardships. Part of this comes from a culture of machismo in which showing emotion is automatically considered a sign of weakness. The armed services have lately attempted to address this culture and the way it can harm the mental health of soldiers, but it’s a slow and difficult fight.
Therefore, veterans entering the workforce are often counseled to ask for help when they need it. Veterans and members of the armed services encounter a variety of unique challenges – challenges that aren’t necessarily easy to navigate. As such, when colleges make resources available for veterans, it is essential those resources are utilized as they are often created in response to specific complaints or needs of former veteran students.
Asking for help is, by far, the most efficient way to gain access to resources that can help you graduate. For this reason, veterans are often encouraged to think of the words “I need help” not as a sign of weakness, but a series of magic words – an access code that grants those who say it the required privileges to succeed. By granting access to additional resources, these words can help a veteran navigate the challenges of studying, get assistance with writing essays, or even just find a group of like-minded individuals who encounter similar problems.
Veteran Success in College
With a fleet of aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets, there are some who would say that it is the technology of the United States armed services that makes it such a dominant force. There are others who might argue that exceptional training makes the military of the USA the strongest in the world. Both of those arguments ignore the possibility that there is something innate in those who take up the challenge of volunteering, especially in a time of war.
When it comes to post-secondary education, this is precisely the attitude that helps veterans and members of the armed services succeed. More than most nontraditional students, veterans and members of the military are looking forward to a bright future – a future that leverages their time in the armed services into a career that can sustain their livelihoods. It’s a similar dream for everybody in college, but with veterans the dream is attached to higher stakes and, perhaps, some additional weight.
Even when encountering all of these challenges, veterans succeed. It’s true that veterans may get a certain amount of extra help along the way, but it’s help that they’ve earned from years of service. Colleges are fully aware the best way to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life is to help them get a job and find a purpose. The easiest way to do this is to provide a college education capable of delivering on the promise of a bright future.
Paying a Debt to Our Veterans
For the last 10 years, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans have defended our freedom. As part of our social debt to these brave men and women, the U.S. government passed the G.I. Bill, which makes it easy to finance a college education. Along with the G.I. Bill comes a fair amount of paperwork and a good deal of trepidation, and this is only the first step.
It’s likely that many veterans would and could succeed even without extra emphasis and programs designed to make the transition easier. That’s just the stuff they’re made of. However, it’s incumbent on us to make the process as smooth as possible. Vista College is committed to veterans and to helping them navigate the unique challenges that come with service.
College, after all, can be a necessary stepping-stone during the transition from armed services to civilian life, just as it can be a necessary stepping stone during the transition to a new career. Vista College makes that transition less of a challenge by making available special admissions staff that focuses solely on veterans and those with a G.I. Bill. Because of this special focus, Vista College veteran’s admission staffers can help veterans navigate unique challenges with the assurance that comes with experience. At Vista College, you won’t be the first veteran that has come through our doors. We can help get you where you’re going.