Vets Who Go Back to School (Part One in a Series)

by on October 17th, 2010
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I thought a lot about returning to school while I was living and working overseas, but the military and raising a family pretty much took up all my time. Well after about 25 years or so, the family and I packed up our things and moved back to the United States and I decided maybe it would be a great moment to go back to the school.

The timing is certainly right: there are several hundred thousand veterans returning to the US after putting theirs lives on hold in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and many of them are itching to continue their education. The Post 9/11 GI Bill almost makes it too easy: providing 100% tuition assistance in most cases, in addition to a monthly living allowance and a stipend for books. You better believe with that kind of incentive, many vets are more than ready to hit the books once again.

It was with that in mind that I recently visited a major university in the Rochester area, making my way to the admissions office to meet with a counselor. I was pretty excited I have to admit but the realization of returning to school after so many years hit me when a 20-year “student greeter” arrived and proceeded to ask me where my son or daughter was. “Why do you want to know?” I replied. “So I can take them on a tour of the campus!” the student-greeter answered. I fought a sheepish smile and quipped, “My daughter isn’t here, but I’ll take you up on that tour seeing as I am the one thinking about going back to school.

Silence.

And in that moment it dawned on me that there are far bigger challenges regarding a return to the hallowed halls of higher learner than just remedial math and biology. In my particular case, I was hit squarely in the face with my age. But that’s just for starters. A point-paper published by the University of Oregon and entitled Issues Faced when Transitioning to Campus does a pretty good job of presenting a laundry-list of challenges a typical veteran will deal with:

- Finding importance and meaning in college experiences and ideas which often may seem trivial compared to those found in combat.

- Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (knowing/following campus rules and regulations, how to address professors and others in positions of authority).

- Making a much greater number of decisions in a far more complex world. While the potential consequences of a combat soldier’s decisions are staggering, the total number of autonomous daily decisions is quite small when compared to college life.

- Feeling alienated in the university environment, where people may not seem to understand the difficulties military members faced or the challenges they endured.

- Many service members who are returning to college after military service will be older than many other new students and have different priorities.

And that’s the short list! I wish I’d read that article before I went to visit the admissions office. I received the same “Gosh you’re kind of old to be student” welcome from the admissions officer and even the even the Dean of the college I wanted to attend. It didn’t help matters much when I called him by his first name instead of “Professor”.

But I digress.

According to an article on Sharecare.com, the majority of students a veteran will meet will have no experience of the military, and, at best, limited understanding. Not to mention that a veteran may feel that he or she has lived through much more than the average student, and it may be difficult to fit in with people who have such dissimilar perspectives. The political environment on some campuses can make a veteran uncomfortable in particular because of potential stigma associated with the voluntary choice of military service among students who have never considered it, and professors who have never experienced it.

I’d like to think that there are far more positives than negatives. But certainly veterans returning to school have their work cut out for them.

Even my daughter – generally one of my biggest fans – while excited that I might return to school, tempered her enthusiasm by advising me to go to school in the evenings where I’d probably find more adults.

This is going to be interesting.


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