Transitioning from Military to College

TBS Staff Writers
Updated September 9, 2022
The first step is to determine what benefits that you're eligible for under the GI Bill and then choose a school that matches your benefits.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

As a military service member, you’ve confronted plenty of challenges. Transitioning to college is a different kind of test.

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

Fortunately, with the expanded opportunities created by the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and the Forever GI Bill®, more than 1.7 million military veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere can access college educations.

Colleges, veteran’s groups, and student-run organizations also provide support systems to help you make this transition, offering academic counseling, financial aid, 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.

The first step is to determine what benefits that you’re eligible for under the GI Bill® and then choose a school that matches your benefits, needs, and interests. For instructions on how to access your benefits, please read our GI Bill® guide.

If you’ve already taken these steps, read on for tips on how to find the support you need to successfully transition from the military into the classroom.

Overcome the Stigma

Many students transitioning from the military struggle with their own resistance to seeking 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 as a member of the armed services, you’ve learned to work closely with and rely on others for success. You can trust your peers in this new environment, too. 

Whether you need help managing 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 your fellow students. 

To learn about your fellow veterans’ struggles while transitioning from military life, visit Real Warriors, a community and resource that illuminates many common difficulties among transitioning veterans. In particular, this program seeks to remove the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Take It One Day at a Time

Veterans may have difficulty with day-to-day college experiences; the national advocacy group Student Veterans of America (SVA) reports that only 53.6% of veterans complete their college programs. To beat these odds, it’s best to be mindful of aspects of your new experience and environment that might be causing you stress, anxiety, or anger. Taking steps to proactively manage these daily challenges will keep them from becoming insurmountable obstacles.

Once again, it is 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 SVA

SVA provides an online portal with materials for adjusting to college, a directory of its 400 campus chapters, and avenues for connecting with fellow student veterans.

Get Academic Help

For many veterans, the strategies they find effective for learning and instruction are quite different than what worked during service training. Fortunately, there are military programs designed to help prepare and support you in your studies.

The Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) offers immersive workshops provided directly through the military. These free programs use “boot camps” to help you harness your service-driven leadership, adaptability, and problem-solving abilities for the academic setting. You’ll also receive instruction on analytic reading and college-level writing, a better understanding of the higher education landscape, and an introduction to the cultural challenges of transitioning out of the military. Often, you can complete this program on your college campus.

The National Association of Veterans Upward Bound (NAVUB) can help you channel your skills and interests into the right educational pursuit. This professional association is funded through the U.S. Department of Education and aims to develop veterans’ personal potential by improving and extending educational opportunities, helping them make the right career choice. Eligible veterans receive an academic needs assessment, instruction, enrichment, and access to other support activities. 

You can also seek support directly through your college. Visit a campus academic counselor, investigate opportunities for school-sponsored tutoring, or join a study group.

Seek Mental Health Support

For many veterans, the most significant challenges can also be the hardest to identify and understand. Military veterans are at a higher risk than their peers of facing mental health challenges like depression, substance abuse, and PTSD. 

According to a Rand Corp. study, nearly 20% of recent veterans reported feelings of depression or PTSD. These conditions can intensify in an unfamiliar and challenging college campus setting: An SVA study found that an alarming 46% of military students had suicidal thoughts, compared to 6% of nonmilitary students.

These figures highlight the mental health difficulties that many veterans face while adjusting to life as students.

As a veteran, it’s wise to preemptively explore the mental health services provided by your campus.

Even if you feel entirely well, you are in uncharted territory, and a few consultations may help you cope better down the road.

If you face more urgent feelings of depression or anxiety, reach out to the mental health support services available on your campus. However, it’s worth noting that some colleges and universities are facing shortages of mental health workers and resources, which can mean long wait times for appointments.

You can also seek support through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA offers resources to help military veterans cope with mental health challenges and transition into various dimensions of civilian life.

Learn to Cope with Your Classmates

Many service members develop feelings of frustration and anger toward classmates who neither understand their experiences nor share their priorities. In particular some veterans resent younger classmates who lack the maturity and discipline 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 subjects like politics and foreign policy. You may even find yourself in disagreements with fellow students who you feel have a limited grasp on life beyond the college campus.

The reality is that you can’t prevent these experiences or control how others choose to behave, but you can prepare yourself emotionally for when it happens. 

The reality is that many students can’t relate to what you’ve been through. Remind yourself that most of these encounters, while frustrating or even emotionally taxing, are not intended with disrespect. Do your best to contain your feelings of anger and resentment when interacting with your fellow students and professors, and seek peers to talk to about it afterward.

Find Others Who Can Relate

Your unique experiences in the service can create a feeling of isolation or loneliness when among your fellow students. Try finding others who understand what you’ve been through and can relate or share their own stories of struggle, transition, and triumph. You can initiate your search for support through a local SVA chapter.

If your campus doesn’t have an SVA chapter, consider starting one by contacting the national organization. By creating a support system for yourself, you’ll also help to provide comfort and camaraderie for others in your situation.

Your campus may host other service member and veterans groups, including on-campus veterans centers, student veteran organizations, and online support communities. If your campus lacks such resources, seek out a local Veterans Affairs facility or reach out to local bases, VA hospitals, community organizations, and social clubs. Spending recreational time with those who can relate to your experience does wonders for mental health. The VA geographical directory lists 1,940 facilities located around the U.S.

Leaving the Regiment

While support is critical when adjusting to college life, make sure to look within and loosen up as well. Of course, this is far easier said than done.

You will find very quickly that college is quite different from military service. You’re trading the highly regimented schedule, rigidly assigned roles, and clearly defined rules of military service for a setting where 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, but you can embrace your independence by creating a regimen that works for you.

Your discipline gives you a distinct advantage during your college education, allowing you to manage your time, attend to your responsibilities, and adapt to challenging situations on your own terms.

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 they also bring a unique set of skills, talents, knowledge, and experience. Remember your strengths, then harness them for your new mission: gaining a quality education.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the VA. More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site.

Frequently Asked Questions

Image Credit: PeopleImages | Getty Images

Military Resources