While College Students Talk Frat Parties, Some Veterans Are Just Struggling to Adjust


School’s back, and a record number of military veterans are going to college because of the wars winding down and the generous offerings of the revamped GI Bill. Colleges and universities are welcoming these students, of course, because of their service. But also, in practicality, because they arrive with tuition already covered on their behalf — cha-ching! New helmets for the football team! The actual instructors of these educational institutions are welcoming them, too. Many professors love their veteran students, seeing them as ideal students and classroom leaders, and are thankful for this influx. Today we're talking about Syria. Anyone have any good input?

But that doesn’t mean that veterans don’t face unique challenges when getting out of military service and then going to school. I understand both perspectives. I first attended a university after two tours in the Middle East. Two degrees later, I now teach English as an adjunct at the Community College of Baltimore County.

A Jarring Transition

You would think that a liberal environment would welcome and consider diversity, but for most veterans, their perspectives and life experiences are vastly different and little consideration is given or attempted. For a report I once prepared on this matter, one Marine told me that the hardest part of going back school "was forcing myself to care about dumb things like partying, chasing skirts, and interviewing for a job, when the only thing worth caring about in combat was staying alive." Another Marine said the most difficult part "was dealing with people who treat every test as life or death."

It’s understandably tough to come from an environment where proficiently carrying out the tiniest details might mean the difference between life and death to a place where your peers show up for class late, take naps during the 10 a.m. lecture, stress out unnecessarily (which can stress everyone else out), or are constantly emailing everyone asking what they missed that day. Couldn’t wake up, bro. Sorry. Too many nattys last night.

It’s also understandable how, given these realities, many veterans might isolate themselves on campus and not reach out to their peers. I was certainly guilty of this at times. It was short-sighted. For many veterans (and for all college learners), the experience should be about meeting as many people as possible and engaging with all the activities and resources available on campus. For the veterans who served in war, going to college can be a nice buffer between the dogma of the military and reintegrating into the more laidback, real world. College is a place to learn, adapt, and grow. The same way the military for veterans was a place to "improvise, adapt, and overcome."

Special Considerations for Health and Abilities

The numbers will always be debated, but there are a significant number of veterans who’ve returned from war with injuries that can affect their cognitive potential. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course, can affect memory, focus, and concentration. Just the same, the signature wound of the war, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), can cause these same issues. For many with TBI, it can’t be healed — only managed. For every class I teach, on my syllabus I add a note about where students can go for special services for learning issues. These services are designed for students with ADD or dyslexia. Most veterans, unfortunately, don’t understand that these services should also be applied to them, and I’m not certain many of these service providers understand the unique nature of their wounds.

At the same time, for many veterans (injured or uninjured), despite receiving specialized training and becoming masters of their crafts in the military (jobs like supply, public affairs, communications, equipment repair, or combat arms), they never received traditional education. It can very defeating and deflating to tell someone who once was responsible for the maintenance of a $20 million helicopter or responsible for the lives of their squad that they need to take remedial math with their new peers who can’t be bothered to show up to class or stay awake during it.

Either of these realities — learning issues and/or the need for a remedial education — can deter many veterans from even wanting to set foot on a college campus. But even for veterans who don’t deal with any special learning considerations or need for extra classes, it’s hard to go from a place of respect and a sense of duty and purpose to the angst and uncertainty any college freshman probably feels about their future.

Overcoming Special Considerations

At the Community College of Baltimore County, I'm one of our seasoned adjuncts in our nationally recognized Accelerated Learning Program. The purpose of the program is to give students a head start toward their education no matter what knowledge base and abilities they’re bringing to the table. It works like this: I have a normal class of 20 freshmen composition students. Ten of these students are also dual-enrolled in remedial English. Immediately after freshmen composition, I have a separate class with the 10, where they get further instruction, and lots of one-on-one attention from me, the instructor. Implicitly, because of this extra attention, I’m supposed to help them with "affective" issues which might disrupt their learning. It could be as simple as, "Make sure you eat something before class" or, "Let me walk you over to financial aid and help you deal with them."

It seems plausible to me that, given the success of this program, and also the fact that veterans bring a whole different set of "affective" issues to the classroom, older veterans like myself or others trained in dealing with these unique issues could have “accelerated” programs for these students in core classes like English and math.

Helping Veterans Reintegrate

I think it’s great that many institutions of higher learning have created veteran centers and championed veterans clubs, and yes, many veterans would rather deal with their fellow warriors, but by this isolation, they're missing out on many valuable life skills like the ability to network, or work and make relationships with others who don’t come from the same background and experiences. Moreover, they’re losing an opportunity to reintegrate into the civilian world more easily. Certainly, from my experiences, it was easier to go from combat to college rather than from combat to "the real world."