Jackie McReynolds, Washington State University Vancouver
“Kevin” is not a traditional college student. At age 26, he is older than many of his classmates, both in terms of his chronological age and his life experience. Rather than spending the last few years in high school preparing for the move to college, he was stationed in a war zone in Afghanistan. Having received an honorable discharge from the military, he is now trying to take advantage of the post-911 educational benefits by transitioning from his unique military life into a new life mission as a student.
Even though Kevin is not typical, he does face many of the same obstacles faced by other students: financing, housing, transportation, time management and study skills, and connecting with college culture. Over the past four years, over one million veterans and their dependents have enrolled in colleges and universities across the country, and there are many more to come (Department of Defense, 2013).
Making the transition from the regimented lifestyle that is typical to the military into one that focuses on independent thinking, creativity, challenging long-held notions, and personal development, can be a very bumpy transition for student veterans. So Kevin must deal with typical student problems, but he may also have some other issues that are directly related to his military service.
This unique group faces many challenges that are different from those of a more typical college student. If they encountered war zone situations during their service, there may be issues related to post traumatic stress (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual trauma (MST), or physical limitations due to injuries. While the physical injuries tend to be more obvious, the others may manifest themselves primarily as behavioral issues, such as fear of being in crowded corridors or needing a seat in the back of each classroom so they can feel secure in their surroundings, or feeling agitated when a professor is using a laser pointer (Burnett & Segoria, 2009). The unseen vulnerabilities are harder to detect and even more difficult to address. It is important not to label a student as a veteran or even as disabled. Former military shy away from using the “veteran” status and reserve its use for those who have been tied to the military for decades. The use of the term “disabled” or “wounded” is also problematic because it carries a negative connotation of being unfit or not able to participate effectively in their own education, which is contrary to the military way of thinking (Burnett & Segoria, 2009).
Advisors can help with the transition into college life by addressing key aspects of the relationship of advisor to student: identifying student strengths; often characteristics such as leadership, team building, personal resilience, or problem-solving were imbued during military service. It is important, at least initially, that the advisor take leadership to inform and direct a student into appropriate courses and campus/community resources. Once the leadership role is established and the student respects the advisor as someone who makes good judgments and offers sound advice, a more developmental approach to advising can occur. Working effectively with former military students requires that the advisor understand the culture shock that many experience at transition. Their military training focuses on building “battlemind” (also referred to as resiliency training), an acronym that describes behavioral components the military hopes to instill as enforced values and behaviors for survival (Castro, 2006). The table below lists these qualities and considers how they might be perceived in civilian life on a college campus.
Military Value Civilian Perception
Buddies (working as a team) Isolated or withdrawn
Accountability Control freak
Tactical awareness Hyper-vigilant
Targeted aggression Anger control issues
Lethally armed Feeling unsafe without weapons
Emotional control Cold, detached
Mission security Inability to trust, secretive
Individual responsibility Unable to ask for help, guilt
Non-defensive driving Aggressive driving/behavior
Discipline Difficulty dealing with conflict or ambiguity
By recognizing certain aspects of “battlemind” in veteran students, advisors can understand more fully what is behind the behavior and can also then create more effective strategies for using these strengths to the student’s advantage or finding ways to lessen those behaviors that are perceived as more negative. At times, veteran students may come across to less mature students as dominating and aggressive because they are following an instructor’s directions to the word and being mindful and respectful of deadlines. Failing to complete an assignment or “mission” on time and in the best shape possible will be seen as a failure by the student, who may then choose to detach emotionally from their classmates and work group and choose to self-isolate, which may mean no longer attending or otherwise participating in class.
Helping military students identify classes and professors that will match not only their interests but their work style and maturity level may also prove to be beneficial to academic success. Encouraging new students to consider CLEP exams (cost of which is covered in Post-911 GI funding) (Sander, 2012), may give them a chance at advanced placement by utilizing skills and knowledge that were part of their military training (e.g., language proficiencies, world geography, cultural anthropology, cartography, mechanical engineering, or other related areas) (College Board, 2013). Conversely, many are discharged with subpar educational attainment, having left high school as underperforming students with no plans for additional education. Offering an array of supportive services is important since these students may have been away from formalized schooling for a while, and may benefit from assistance that helps them get back into a student learning mindset. Utilizing resources such as tutoring, peer mentoring, or attendance at workshops on time management or study skills may prove to be quite beneficial, especially if they are presented as tools to accomplishment of their new mission.
It takes a “veteran friendly” campus to support the varying needs of student veterans, and it also takes a community that is ready to step up and support them. Not all campuses are fortunate enough to have the many resources that a student will need. Helping students successfully transition from the intense physical stimulation of military life to the more sedate and mundane atmosphere of a classroom will depend upon the student’s success in setting goals for a new life mission (Wilson & Smith, 2012): finding a mentor (advisor, faculty member, or staff assistant); identifying a peer group that is supportive and inclusive (veteran’s club); and recognizing supportive services that will help them navigate their way (tutoring, disability services, counseling) through the less hierarchical system of higher education.
Smaller campuses, in particular, can benefit from providing training to campus personnel on using the 2-1-1 Human Services Community Information web site and hotline (211 Information Hotline, 2013). The 2-1-1 service, available nationwide, provides individualized information and access to anyone looking for help with a problem that is creating discomfort, unrest, or crisis. Students will find access to physical and mental health resources, housing assistance, food and clothing support, addiction treatment programs, and a host of other valuable connections in the community using the 2-1-1 resource. Encouraging student veterans to put 2-1-1 and the vet crisis hotline number (1-800-273-8255) into their phone contacts will work if it is suggested that it will be a valuable resource if a buddy needs some help. Former military will almost always see themselves as better off than others and will defer to anyone they see as more in need of help than they perceive themselves to be.
When troops transition out of military service, there may be a limited degree of support to help them move on with their civilian lives. Helping them to make that transition by providing one or more well-identified “go-to” persons on campus who understand and can relate to the military experience, giving good information in a directive fashion that feels familiar and comfortable, and following through with supportive services on an as-needed basis are all crucial to the academic success of student veterans. Higher education can meet the needs of those who served in the military, but advisors who are unfamiliar with military culture need to acquaint themselves with the challenges they may bring, develop some empathy and understanding for the uniqueness of their experiences, and work closely with them to build a structure that helps them accomplish their next life mission: a degree and a civilian career.
Department of Human Development
Washington State University Vancouver
211 Information Hotline. (2013). Retrieved from http://211info.org/
Burnett, S. & Segoria, J. (2009). Collaboration for military transition students from combat to college: It takes a community. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 22(1), 53-58.
Castro, C. (2006). Battlemind training I: Transitioning from combat to home. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.ne.gov/pdfs/WRAIR-battlemind-training-brochure.pdf
College Board (2013). CLEP for military. Retrieved from http://clep.collegeboard.org/military
Cook, and Kim, (2009). From soldier to student: Easing the transition of service members on campus. Veterans in Higher Education, pp. 95-112.
Department of Defense. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.gibill.va.gov/
Sander, L. (2012). The post-9/11 GI bill explained. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(4).
Wilson, K. & Smith, N. (2012). Understanding the importance of life mission when advising soldiers. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2012 (136), 65-75.
Cite this article using APA style as: McReynolds, J. (2014, March). Lessening the culture shock: Military life vs. student life. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]