The transition of a veteran from combat to a college environment produces a unique set of challenges and stresses. Some of these are observable and apparent: a 'ruc sac' is exchanged for a book bag, a 'mess tent' is replaced by a dining hall, and camouflage gives way to school colors. Most transitional issues, however, are far more subtle and complex.
Many veterans will be returning from an extended period of exposure to severe emotional or mental trauma, hypervigilance, and highly stressful working and living conditions. As they return to school, some may experience difficulty and frustration adjusting to the stress and demands of college life. Many may experience emotional and cognitive impairments that interfere with their ability to study, concentrate and perform academically. They may also experience family or interpersonal problems that affect social functioning. The added stress of social and interpersonal problems will also negatively affect academic functioning. These issues, when coupled with the challenges related to returning to general civilian life, place returning veteran students at a significantly higher risk of dropping out.
All service members, whether or not they have seen combat, face a major transition when they return from military to civilian and/or college life. Particular issues may include:
- Developing a primary identity other than as a soldier.
- Difficulty relating to and connecting with traditional college students. Age differences and the experience of combat (e.g., bullets whizzing by, mortar attacks, roadside bombs) frequently cause veterans to feel different than and alienated from traditional college students. Typical student concerns like grades, parties, and joining organizations seldom have the same significance to veterans, who often voice a sense of greater maturity and seriousness than traditional students. The felt alienation can be exacerbated on politically charged campuses where antiwar protests occur.
- Finding importance and meaning in experiences and ideas that are not life-or-death. Campus life and concerns may seem trivial compared to those found in combat.
- Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (e.g., knowing the rules and mores of the campus, where to go to get things done, how to address professors and others in positions of authority).
- Making a much greater number of decisions in a far more complex world. While the potential consequences of a combat soldier's decisions are staggering, the total number of autonomous daily decisions is quite small when compared to college life.
- Developing a sense of safety on campus (e.g., choosing classroom seats that allow for monitoring of others and rapid escape, such as sitting with their back to the wall and near a door).
- Boredom (e.g., missing the adrenaline rush experienced in the 'high' of battle)
- Having difficulty returning to their role as children of their parents. The maturing process of serving in combat may cause younger veterans to be less accommodating to parental expectations and demands.
- They can feel alienated in the university environment, where people may not seem to understand the difficulties military members faced or the challenges they endured. Military members are returning from an intense and close community built on common experience.
- Some service members who are returning to college after military service will be older than many other new students and have different priorities.
- Anxiety issues related to deployment are common and may interfere with veterans feeling comfortable during the transition and building new relationships. It should not be assumed, however, that all returning veterans suffer from mental health issues.
- Some veterans are also making a physical transition, learning to live with new disabilities. Strong and supportive communities can ease the transition for all of these veterans, as can ensuring that veterans are aware of the appropriate resources.
Supporting University of Minnesota Student Veterans
Texas State University: Supporting Student Veterans
James Madison University: For Returning War Veterans