By Brad Wrenn, Coordinator of the UNCG Veterans Resource Center
Making the transition into higher education is an exciting and challenging experience for everyone, but students who are coming to college after serving on active duty in the armed forces bring with them a unique set of both challenges and opportunities for the students themselves, for their families, and for the institutions they attend.
Regardless of how long a person is enlisted or commissioned in the military, upon their separation or discharge, most service members are granted Veterans Affairs education benefits that provide them with financial assistance for college in the form of paid tuition, tuition assistance, or monthly stipends. Some benefits packages allow military-affiliated students to pay in-state tuition at any public institution of higher learning in the nation regardless of their home of record. Some VA benefits can even be transferred to the children and spouses of service members. While these education benefits facilitate the transition from military to academic life, they can also cause several challenges for veterans that traditional students do not experience. For instance, VA benefits only pay for classes that are directly related to the plan of study for a student’s stated major. This means that military-affiliated students have fewer opportunities to explore potential areas of interest and must develop a comprehensive graduation plan early on in their college careers. Also, all education benefits packages must be processed through a myriad of systems both within the VA and the higher education institutions they attend. Because of this, many students experience delays in the payment of their benefits and must take extra steps with their school’s administration to ensure that they are not dropped from their classes each semester.
In addition to these issues, some service members face significant personal and social struggles when making the choice to pursue a college degree. For these student veterans, particularly for those who have separated recently, the lifestyle associated with the higher education environment is quite different from what they have become accustomed to in the military. Student veterans often feel that they have very little in common with their civilian student peers, and sometimes have trouble making meaningful social connections on campus. Furthermore, because of their experiences in the military and in combat, student veterans sometimes have unique perspectives about certain socio-political situations or topics that their traditional classmates have trouble understanding. This causes the veterans to either withdraw from these discussions entirely so as not to create confrontations, or to express their opinions in a very overt way that civilian classmates might find insensitive or offensive. In either case, student veterans often feel isolated and stigmatized in the classroom.
Adding to this isolation is the fact that student veterans are also far more likely than traditional students to live off-campus and have obligations outside of school related to jobs and families. This causes significant difficulty with time management and results in student veterans being far less likely to take part in extracurricular activities such as student groups, trips, team sports.
Finally, many student veterans face service-related injuries or illnesses that can complicate their transition to academia. One such condition that can directly and significantly affect the college experience for service members, particularly those who have experienced combat, is post-traumatic stress. The symptoms of post traumatic stress can include sleep difficulties, hypervigilance or hyperarousal, and discomfort with large groups of people. Another somewhat common service-related condition is Traumatic Brain Injury. These injuries involve physiological damage to the brain, and can hinder skills such as memorization, concentration, and attention maintenance, making it difficult for students to focus on assignments and exams, and sometimes causing them to accumulate excessive absences.
Despite these challenges, the military provides student veterans with tremendously important life skills such as strong core values, discipline, leadership, teamwork skills, and the ability to perform under stress. Student veterans bring to colleges and universities a level of grit and fortitude that is always sought but often not seen in traditional college students. They usually retain and persist at a higher rate than their civilian counterparts and typically maintain a higher than average GPA. For this reason, it is extremely important for higher education institutions to ensure that they have the systems, the knowledge, and the understanding necessary to provide the highest level of service to this community of students who have offered their own service in defense of our nation.
Brad Wrenn is the Coordinator of the Veterans Resource Center at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. After being honorably discharged from the United States Air Force in 2002, Brad earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Business from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a Master’s Degree in Adult Education from East Carolina University. He currently lives in Greensboro with his wife Rachel and their two dogs, Karma and Levi, and he enjoys backpacking, gardening, and beekeeping in his spare time.