Published on 2013/07/23

Adapting to Civilian Life: Veterans and Higher Education

Adapting to Civilian Life: Veterans and Higher Education
As increasing numbers of veterans begin to transition back to civilian life, making sure higher education institutions are ready to serve them is critical.

“After I leave the military with combat experience, with the economy being tight and no degree, how do I compete in today’s job market? I have no marketable skills in the civilian world and I’m so far behind my peers I don’t know where to start.”  

In my position, I’ve heard these sentiments time and again. Many veterans see the obstacles they face upon returning to civilian life as higher than the climbing wall they had to get over during basic training.

After reporting for duty, they have spent a very focused and rigorous period of time (basic training) where they have been ‘reoriented’ to become a military member. The experiences after basic training for many of them, after one or multiple nine-month or one-year tours, are more intense than what most non-veterans have to face in a lifetime. They now have to deal with a much less structured environment not focused on the goals of the military but on themselves. There is no senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) giving orders for the next mission or the next day’s patrol schedules. They are now on their own. They previously knew their fellow service member relied on them to be safe. Someone always had their “six,” or their back. Now who’s watching out for them?

Just the transition into not having the squad behind them is tough enough, but there is also the perceived pressure of having to catch up to their peers. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the classroom. I’ve spoken to students who can’t relate to their fellow classmates’ interests in clothes, music and other things the typical 19 to 23-year-old focuses on. “They don’t get what’s important” is a common statement I hear from veterans. I try to work with my veterans to understand they have had many uncommon experiences and are therefore more ‘enlightened’ to some of life’s more extreme events and they should be proud they could face these issues. I explain that their classmates will never see life as they already have, but may have faced personal and/or family issues the veteran won’t face and, for that reason, they should take the time to find out more about each of their classmates.

From an academic standpoint, getting to the point where she or he actually enrolls is, for many, an overwhelming task. What school should I attend? Can I sit in a classroom and not be bored? Will I have anything in common with my fellow students who are almost assuredly much younger than I? And the biggest question of all: now that I’m no longer in uniform, what do I do with the rest of my life? Are my most profound life experiences behind me?

I salute the armed forces for providing transition services both pre- and post-separation. However, for the most part, the next step is up to the veterans themselves. I also applaud the growing tide of institutions and legislators beginning to address the need to acknowledge that our military veterans, active duty, National Guard and reserve members have many experiences and training transferrable to civilian life.

Once a veteran determines his or her next step is to get a degree, selection of a school is important. Too often, this is done with inadequate counseling or knowledge of the academic arena. I’m aware of too many students who enroll in a college or program that, upon graduation, hasn’t prepared them for their next step in life. Too many enroll in programs that are not accredited and are scorned by employers.

Once they have identified a school to attend, then there is the amount of paperwork required to be admitted, enrolled in classes and to get certified and signed up for veterans’ (VA) benefits. In too many schools, this is left up to the veteran who may be trained in how to react in a fire fight, but is overwhelmed by the administrative steps it takes to enroll in an academic program. One big concern is to identify which VA benefit(s) they are qualified for. It may not seem like a lot and, with adequate counseling, they can get through it, but many bog down on this one issue.

The next step is to demilitarize their way of interacting with civilians. The use of the word “Sir” when addressing a civilian may initially be perceived as a sign of respect by the civilian. However, after the first few discussions, it often loses its luster and can even make the civilian uncomfortable … uncomfortable enough the civilian feels the veteran cannot readapt into the civilian world.

I often wish there was a dictionary to help veterans learn to “translate” their military speak and terminology into the civilian language. There are many organizations and software programs available to assist veterans to do this, but I don’t see most veterans able to “turn the switch” and realize they are speaking a language most civilians do not understand.  Using these organizations and programs will help to strengthen the veterans’ chances of getting reestablished in the civilian workforce more quickly.

Over the next three years, nearly one million service members will be leaving the military. The concept that they are now combat-hardened so they should be capable of managing their own life doesn’t hold any weight. Yes, they can operate in high-stress, life-threatening situations. But in civilian life, you don’t get those adrenaline-fueled moments and, along with the reported 30 percent of war zone participants returning to civilian life with some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, they can be overwhelmed by what we see as routine.

We owe a great deal to these veterans, both young and old. We need to make sure they have the support of academia and employers, who go beyond only verbally recognizing the service and sacrifices these individuals have made. We need to let them know the training and experiences they have can be used in the “real world.” The first step is to develop more programs that can help veterans transition into civilian life. Programs such as our VIPER program — which translates military experience to academic credits — should be made more widely available to veterans and, similarly, should become more widely accepted by employers as a viable credential.

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Readers Comments

Melanie Khan 2013/07/23 at 7:49 am

I’m encouraged to read an article by someone who is so clearly a champion of veterans. We need more people like Feldman, who understand the needs this unique group of students has and who believe in giving them opportunities to succeed. We should be pushing our legislators to increasingly recognize veterans and the need to support them not only with words, but actions.

Tyrese Banner 2013/07/23 at 12:43 pm

I agree that many civilians think, because these veterans have received intensive training to handle stress, they are able to do so just as well in a non-military setting. That is not the case.

Would-be student veterans need help to understand what we in higher education see as standard procedures. Counselors and advisors with experience in veterans’ affairs often have an important function as a “cultural translator” of sorts to these student veterans. This is a very real need, and it’s good to see it being addressed through programs like VIPER.

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