Transitioning from Military to College

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As a military servicemember, you’ve confronted challenges, overcome obstacles, and shown courage in the face of danger. But now, you must prepare for an altogether different set of challenges. Making the transition from military service to a college, training, or certification program will require you to adapt to a new environment, one that might at first feel unfamiliar and even uncomfortable.

On one hand, the skills that you’ve honed during your service — discipline, organization, time management, attentiveness — give you an edge in succeeding as a student. On the other hand, the academic, social, and cultural realities of college life will likely require some adjustment on your part.

The good news is, you’re hardly alone. With the expanded opportunities created by the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, more than two million military veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond are eligible for extensive benefits.

This means that colleges, veterans groups, and student-run organizations are working harder than ever to put support systems in place to help you make this transition, from academic counseling and financial aid to medical and mental health resources. But it will be up to you to take advantage of these resources and make the most of your college experience.

Your very first step is to determine the benefits that you’re eligible for under the GI Bill and, subsequently, to choose a school that matches your benefits, your needs, and your interests. For instructions on accessing your benefits, check out our Complete Guide to Using Your GI Bill.

If you’ve already taken these steps, read on for a series of tips designed to help you make the transition from military into college, along with links aimed at helping you find the support you need to succeed!

Overcome the Stigma

One of the first obstacles that you must overcome to succeed in college may be your own resistance to seeking or accepting support. For many veterans, there is a stigma surrounding the struggles of post-service acclimation. It can be hard to admit that you need help, especially considering some of the real-world challenges that you’ve faced and overcome during your service. But this is a new environment, and adjusting is not always easy. In many cases, recognizing you need help, or support, or even just the company of others who have shared your experience will be the most important step you take.

Whether you need help managing new academic challenges, cultural surroundings, medical conditions, mental health concerns, or substance abuse issues, take advantage of the resources and personnel provided by your campus, your community, the military, and even your fellow students. As a member of the armed services, you’ve learned to work closely with and rely on others for success. This may be a totally new environment, but putting your trust in others is just as important.

For an appreciation of the struggles that your fellow veterans have undergone in transitioning from military life, visit Real Warriors, a community and resource that illuminates many of the difficulties common among transitioning veterans. In particular, this program removes the stigma surrounding the mental health challenges, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to which veterans are uniquely vulnerable.

Take It One Day At A Time

The challenges many soldiers face in adjusting to life on campus aren’t necessarily dramatic and obvious. For many, it is the challenge of “day-to-day reintegration and transition.”

This day-to-day experience can be especially difficult for veterans, who have a roughly 50% rate of college program completion. This means it’s important for you to be conscious of the aspects of your new experience and environment that might be causing you stress, anxiety, anger, or the wide array of other feelings that can accompany difficult and unfamiliar experiences. It’s important to take steps to manage these challenges proactively, on a daily basis, so that they don’t become immovable obstacles on your way to a degree.

Once again, this is where it becomes especially important to find proper support services for your particular area of need. For general concerns, and for help locating support resources that apply to your situation, reach out to the Student Veterans Association (SVA). A national advocacy group with chapters on 400 campuses, the SVA provides an online portal that includes materials about making the adjustment to college, a directory of SVA campus chapters, and a host of avenues for connecting with fellow student veterans.

Get Academic Help

For many veterans, the strategies for learning and instruction — whether in a large lecture hall, a small intimate classroom, or through an online platform — are quite different than the strategies used to train for service. This means that you’ll need to reconsider your approach.

Fortunately, there are a number of programs offered through the military that can help both prepare and support you in your studies.

The Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), for instance, is a set of one- to two-week immersive workshops provided directly through the military. These programs, offered to you free-of-charge, are aimed at helping you prepare for your new academic environment. The WSP provides classroom “boot camps” that teach you how to harness your service-driven leadership, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities for use in the classroom setting. You’ll also receive introductory instruction on analytic reading and college-level writing skills, a better understanding of the higher education landscape, and an introduction to the cultural challenges that await you in your transition. In many cases, you can complete this program on your college campus.

The National Association of Veterans Upward Bound (NAVUB) is another valuable academic support resource for veterans, one that can help you channel your skills and interests into the right educational pursuit. This professional association — funded through the U.S. Department of Education — is dedicated to developing the personal potential of all veterans by helping to improve and extend educational opportunities. Eligible veterans will receive an academic needs assessment, instruction, enrichment, and access to other support activities. One of the best ways to ease the transition is to make informed decisions about your educational path. The NAVUB aims to help you do this.

And of course, you can always seek support directly through your campus. Visit your academic counselor, find out about opportunities for school-sponsored tutoring, or look for study groups to join.

Seek Mental Health Support

For many veterans, the biggest challenges can also be the hardest to identify and understand. Military veterans are at a higher risk than their peers to face mental health challenges including depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to a study by the Rand Corp., nearly 20% of recent veterans reported to feelings of depression or PTSD. These conditions can sometimes be magnified by the unfamiliar and challenging setting of a college campus. In a study conducted by the SVA, an alarming 46% of military students indicated that they had contemplated suicide, as compared to 6% of nonmilitary students.

These figures highlight the mental health difficulties that many veterans face while adjusting to life as a student. As a veteran, you should consider preemptively exploring the mental health services provided by your campus. Even if you feel entirely well, you are in uncharted territory. A few consultations may help you find strategies for coping with your new environment.

If you are facing more urgent feelings of depression or anxiety, you should consider mental health support an essential part of easing your transition to college. Again, reach out to the mental health support services available on your campus. But take note that some colleges and universities are contending with shortages of mental health workers and resources, which can result in long wait times for appointments.

As a veteran, you do have access to support services created to help you reconcile your experiences in the service with your challenges as a student. Begin by seeking support through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA makes available a host of resources that are designed to help military veterans cope with mental health challenges and transition into various dimensions of civilian life. Among them:

Learn to Cope with Your Classmates

One of the unspoken realities that many servicemembers face is a feeling of frustration, even anger, toward classmates who neither understand their experiences nor share their priorities. Some veterans express resentment over younger classmates who lack the maturity or discipline that are typically developed through military service.

Your classmates may ask you inappropriate questions about your service. Your professors may lean on you — whether you like it or not — for your uniquely-informed opinions on subject like politics and foreign policy. You may even find yourself in disagreements with fellow students who you feel have a limited grasp on the real world beyond the college campus.

The reality is, there is likely no way of preventing some of these experiences. You can’t control how others choose to behave. But you can prepare yourself emotionally for the reality that many students can’t relate to what you’ve been through. Remind yourself that most of these encounters, while frustrating and even emotionally taxing, are not always meant with disrespect. Do your best to contain your feelings of anger and resentment when interacting with your fellow students and professors.

If these feelings become overwhelming, seek support from available mental health service outlets such as the Vet Centers Facebook Community or the Veterans Crisis Line, which you can call toll-free (8–800-273–8255), chat with online, or text (838255).

Find Others Who Can Relate

Another cultural challenge that stems from your unique experiences in the service may be a feeling of isolation or loneliness among your fellow students or the sense that you don’t entirely belong. One way to help counteract that feeling is to find others who understand what you’ve been through, who can relate, and who can share their own stories of struggle, transition, and triumph.

If your campus has a local Student Veterans Association chapter, this could also be a good starting point for seeking out support.

Visit the SVA Chapter Directory to find a chapter in your vicinity.

If your campus doesn’t have an SVA chapter, you can become your school’s flagship member. Contact the national organization to find out how you can start a chapter at your college or university. This could be a great way to find other veterans on campus while flexing the leadership muscles you’ve built during your service. You won’t just be creating a support system for yourself, but you’ll be helping others in your situation find the same comfort and camaraderie.

Your campus may also host a number of other servicemember and veterans groups, including on-campus Veterans Centers, student veteran organizations, and online support communities.

If your campus lacks such resources or organizations, consider finding support through a local Veterans Affairs facility. You can reach out to local bases, VA hospitals, and community organizations to find support groups, organizations, or even just social clubs where you can spend recreational time with those who can relate to your experience. The Department of Veterans Affairs geographical directory lists 1,917 VA facilities located around the U.S. and provides a good place to start your search.

Leaving the Regiment

While support is critical to making the adjustment, there is at least one thing you’ll have to do entirely on your own. Loosen up!

Of course, this is far easier said than done, but you will find very quickly that college is quite different than military service. You’re trading the highly-regimented schedule, rigidly assigned roles, and clearly defined rules of military service for a setting in which schedules vary, roles are loosely defined, and everything is up for debate — even some of the rules.

You may miss the clarity and direction that come with service. The best advice we can offer is to embrace your independence by creating a regimen that works for you. Your discipline will be a distinct advantage during your college education, allowing you to manage your time, attend to your responsibilities, and adapt to challenging situations. But now, you can do it on your own terms.

Create the college experience that you want: one that combines your newfound independence with the skills and traits that helped you succeed in the service.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for making the transition from military service to a college education. Every veteran faces a unique set of challenges. But every veteran also brings a unique set of skills, talents, knowledge, and experience. Remember your strengths, channel them, and harness them to the new mission of gaining a quality education.

For more information and resources on getting a quality education, earning a degree or getting a great job, return to the Military Education Headquarters.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at https://benefits.va.gov/gibill/index.asp

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