By Alina Hunter-Grah, Chattanooga, Tenn. —
At our University, around 450 students have either been in military service or are closely affiliated with the military. Student veterans are one of the only groups on campus that cover all other demographics. They are of all races, genders and sexual orientations. They live on campus and off campus. Some are married and have children and have a full time job. Some are 20 years old and some are 70 years old.
But regardless of who they are, the transition from being an active duty soldier to a full time college student can be a difficult one.
“I was a helicopter mechanic, so yeah, I had to worry that the helicopter didn’t crash in flight, but the only thing I had to memorize was right place, right time, right uniform and then my job,” said Corey Adkins, a freshman who served with the U.S. Army for six years. “Now I’ve got four different classes in different subjects that I’m trying to memorize something for. And for me, that’s almost impossible.”
The transition is difficult for some for a variety of reasons, but most mentioned that the change from such a structured environment to one described as “chaotic” was what was the hardest part. Joe Wiram, the Coordinator for Veteran Student Services, sums up what the experience is like for many veterans.
“These men and women have spent anywhere from three to 20+ years in a very strict and controlled environment of the military where they are literally getting the clothes that they are to wear, they’re told where to go and when to be there, when they can eat,” said Wiram. “And everyday they’re working with the same people that are all working in the same direction for the same purpose and goal. They come on campus and it’s absolute chaos to where now it’s up to them as a student to get their own butt up and it’s up to them to find and traverse their way across campus to find classes.”
Others mentioned that the large age gap between the average student and some of the student veterans was the biggest thing to get over.
“It’s the age difference,” said Celina Partida, a senior who served in the Army for six years. “I’m surrounded by a lot of kids and a lot of people that I have nothing in common with. It wasn’t until I came [to the Veteran’s Lounge] that I actually started to talk to people. Otherwise, I have nothing in common with anybody here. I also think that it’s hard getting used to being around people that don’t put a lot of effort into what they’re doing. I guess some of it really is the age difference, and not that everybody is like that.”
“When I came here I was 34 years old, and because of the big age gap, I had to dress like a bum or students would think I was a professor the first couple weeks of school,” said Jeremy Bryson, a senior and co-chair of the Student Veterans Organization who served in the military for 16 and a half years .
To adapt, many veterans found that being able to connect with other student veterans is what helped the most. Student Veterans were able to do this through the Student Veteran’s Organization and through all of the various programs planned for veterans on campus.
“What got me to adapt was the student veterans organization. It was a group of individuals that were like me that were going through the same things with me that I could talk to. So, if there was a situation, I could talk to them,” said Bryson speaking of his time before becoming co-chair of the Student Veterans Organization. “Because you have to understand, we’re all brothers. When you leave the military and you’re away from the military, you feel alone even with your family. Because your family that you fought with is away. So to come around with people that have been in combat or at least in the military, they know what you’re going through and you build that brotherhood up again.”
Most student veterans seemed to expect to see a difference in lifestyles, but did not expect the culture shock that came with it.
“You expect some hardships, some transitional hardships. When I was 19, I was in Bosnia picking up dead bodies. I made that choice to do that. I’m coming to an environment where individuals haven’t had to make that choice in a long time because of people like me,” said Bryson. “Colleges are made for 19-year-old adults. They’re not made for 37-year-old adults. We’re all non-traditional students. I had a career in the military that I was going to do for 20+ years, but it got cut short. All of us had had what people would call a career. Our goals and our mission is different than most of the population of UTC. Students are still trying to find themselves and find their way. We’ve already found our way and we’re trying to get there, so its just a culture shock.”
However, the military provided many of the veterans with some skills that not only help them adapt to UTC, but help distinguish them from the rest of the population.
“I think the numerous skills that we all learned in the military from leadership to being adaptable in a new environment and learning to cope with those changes and succeed in them have definitely helped any one of us to be able to go to a new environment such as a classroom and be able to, instead of receiving incoming fire, receive homework, ” said Robert Barber, senior and co-chair of the Student Veterans Organization who served in the Marine Corps for nine years. “I think those leadership skills have definitely prepared us for life in general, not just for college.”
Several other organizations exist on campus that aim to help veterans ease into college life such as the Green Zone.
Green Zone operates in the same way as other student support systems like SafeZone and the disABILITY Ambassador programs. Students and faculty undergo training that teaches them about the challenges and needs of student veterans so that they can better help these students. These faculty members and students are then given a sticker to post on a door or backpack to show that they are advocates to our student veterans. This is also aimed at trying to lower the stigma associated with veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many student veterans have found the program to be fairly helpful and wish that the program would be able to be mandated among professors.
A student training session will be held Thursday, March 24 for those who wish to be a Green Zone advocate. An email with more information will be sent out to all students as the event nears.
Student veterans also have a variety of other resources available to them. Two veteran lounge exists on the bottom floor of the UC for student veteran use. One lounge exists as a hang-out spot for student veterans. A TV, computers, and coffee are available to student veterans in a place where they are able to be with like-minded individuals. The other lounge is a quiet study space for veterans who may not feel as comfortable working in the library, but are unable to concentrate in the main lounge.
The Student Veterans Services and Programs often works with the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to help student veterans get access to resources that might help those affected by their time in the military. Students have access to pens that record lectures, classrooms that use video conference calls for students who feel uncomfortable in large groups of people, and several other things.
The DRC is also hosting an open house for student veterans called “We’ve Got Your 6” that aims to help make student veterans aware of resources available to them. “We’ve Got Your Six” is a saying that means “We’ve got your back” as it refers to the clock position of one’s back while they are facing a “12 o’clock” position. The open house is scheduled for Thursday, March 24 from 1 p.m to 5 p.m.
Veterans, also through the help of the the Student Veterans Services and Programs, receive discounts at any Aramark food service and the book store. Every Tuesday at Crossroads is also Veterans Tuesday where Veterans can purchase a meal for $5. Every other Tuesday at Crossroads from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., Joe Wiram reserves a table for student veterans to come and chat with others.
While the military has prepared the student veterans for the transition into college, college has also helped them learn lessons that will carry on with them after their time on campus.
“UTC has prepared me for life after college, because I get to work with individuals that aren’t like-minded or on the same career path as me,” said Bryson. “In the military, we usually stay with our own, and we climb up the ladder. Here, I’ve had to work with people that were way outside my window and networking, so as much as the military has prepared me, UTC has prepared me to go on.”