From Rucksack to Backpack: A Veteran’s Transition to Higher Education
Higher Education Veterans often have a hard time connecting with other students and do not readily find themselves part of a visible cohort on campus.
I remember sitting on rooftops in Iraq talking about college as if it were some mythical foreign land, full of mystery and wonder. At the time, it seemed so unattainable, a distant horizon. My primary focus was surviving my deployment.
My decision to leave the military was made one fateful day in October 2004 when I was shot multiple times during an enemy ambush. I was 21-years-old when I returned home, barely old enough to legally order a drink.
I rode a euphoric wave of excitement and appreciation the first few weeks being home. Achieving an almost local celebrity status amongst my friends and family as they joyously welcomed my presence and delighted in hearing about my various adventures.
I’m the first to admit that I had no real plan after leaving the military, I honestly felt so burnt out after my deployment that I wished I could have just retired. Unfortunately, as I came to realize, this was not a possibility.
The weeks and months after returning home began to blend together and precious time slipped away like an hourglass. I did nothing constructive during this period. Alcohol was a common denominator in most of my plans and the emotions which I had fought to suppress began to rear their ugly heads. Isolation became comfort as anxious thoughts hijacked my perception and sleep. My worldview became darker and more negative and I retracted into myself. I was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"College gave me focus, a goal, a mission to accomplish and a direction to move toward. I no longer felt stagnant, purposeless or lost."
I kept in touch with as many of my fellow soldiers as I could as it brought me feelings of comfort and security. One of my closest friends from the military persuaded me to begin college. This decision changed my life.
A new focus
College gave me focus, a goal, a mission to accomplish and a direction to move toward. I no longer felt stagnant, purposeless or lost. I met fellow veteran college students and we formed our own student veteran’s organization on campus. The shared experiences from the military and common goals drew our bonds closer—we became a unit and helped each other succeed in this new area of operations.
I came to learn that college really was a magical place, it had the ability to elevate and empower individuals, to change family trees. I was exposed to opportunities which I could have never imagined. I further grew as an individual, socially, mentally and professionally. I became sharper and more meticulous in approaching new challenges. I learned skills and obtained a degree which made me more marketable and gave me value to offer and another sense of accomplishment. Now, I am helping current and prospective veteran students with everything from enrollment to benefits.
I went into college as a sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge and experience it had to offer. If you are debating whether or not you should go to college after leaving the military I offer some insight and advice from my experiences.
Enroll as soon as you are able to upon re-integration. Start small if you have to, community colleges are a good steppingstone. These schools allow you to refresh your skills and familiarize yourself with the college tempo, you can then transfer into a four year institution.
Take full advantage of the school’s veteran’s office and personnel, they can assist you with most if not all issues you may face as a student. Familiarize yourself with the benefits you have earned, specifically how much time you have to use them and schedule your classes accordingly.
Treat school as you would a full-time job to maximize the GI Bill. Make a backward plan if you can, start with the job you want and find the degree necessary. Keep your eye on the prize, it is a grind, so getting help from peers such as the university’s student veterans organization can make things easier.