Some of the most important experiences I’ve ever had in the classroom have occurred when I’ve worked with college students who are active-duty service members or military veterans. They bring rich and vivid experiences to class discussion, and remind traditional students that the world is a much bigger, more diverse, and much more dangerous place than their limited environments of home and school in the United States. But there’s another side to that coin: the absolute worst teaching experiences I have ever had were the two occasions I had to watch, helplessly, as veteran students succumbed to Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) right in my class. This happened over the course of a few weeks in one case, and suddenly and violently in another case.
The long years of American military involvement in the Middle East, not to mention our continued military presence throughout the rest of the world, has created a substantial veteran population. More than two million Americans have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and many of these veterans, some of whom joined the military right out of high school, are now entering college classrooms in increasing numbers. They have taken advantage of the benefits offered as of 2009 by the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (aka, “Post-9/11 GI Bill), which was “the largest expansion of veterans’ education benefits since passage of the original GI Bill in 1944.”
Unfortunately, we do not at this point have any accurate numbers indicating the success or failure rate of active-duty service members and veteran students currently enrolled in college. All that is available are scattered anecdotes from students and faculty such as myself. As reported by USAToday, there is no national tracking system to determine the success rate of veteran service members in college, though President Barack Obama recently mandated that the Veterans Administration and other federal agencies create and operate one, to improve services to military students.
Yet we know that military students face unique challenges when transitioning to college. Also, while any student can have difficulty dealing with the subjects discussed in a course or with the pressures of college, for military or veteran students there are particular issues that should be topmost in the minds of their school administrators and faculty members.
Colorado State University (CSU) is one of many colleges and universities that provides faculty with many strategies for dealing with military and veteran students in the classroom. But what about the students themselves? What problems do they struggle with and how can they manage them and successfully complete their college educations?
Below, I provide a list of four specific issues faced by military students. If you are an active service member enrolled in college or a veteran student, these tips may help you handle some of the challenges:
- Manage time effectively: As CSU states, military students may have trouble adapting to the relative freedom of the average college student’s schedule, compared with the ordered and regimented daily routines of military service. The best solution for that is to create your own schedule and stick to it. You are the commanding officer of your own life now, and you have the authority to determine your priorities and needs. For example, you may decide that it is best to ease into college and take just a few courses to start with, to determine how much time you will need for all of your coursework. It may also be important to continue some of the activities that were part of your military schedule, such as exercise or specific mealtimes. Consistency can be reassuring and help you transition to your new life.
- Seek academic support: If you have been out of school for several years, you’re probably rusty on a number of academic skills. You’re not alone: many different kinds of students seek assistance with their college work. Some just need a few sessions to brush up on their skills; others may require more long-term tutoring. For veterans, the effects of service-related injuries may require you to work with the academic support team at your school to develop an accommodation plan that will help you manage any disabilities you may have. For example, former Marine Vincent Acevedo told USAToday that when he was a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, he had to learn how to accommodate short-term memory issues caused by an injury sustained during an explosion in Iraq. Your college will have many resources to help you adapt to the demands of college-level work.
- Reach out for emotional/psychological support: Both episodes of PTSD that occurred in my courses happened when while we discussed war (as a history professor, I find that’s a pretty unavoidable topic.) You can never know how a discussion or topic will affect you. Also, as University of Iowa freshman Adam Connell told The New York Times, the constant hyper-vigilance he had developed while serving in combat situations made class time exhausting. He said, “I had feelings of bad anxiety. When you pull into ports, because terrorism is so high, you are always supervigilant at all times. In these 300-person lecture halls, you are just surrounded by people you don’t know.” It can be difficult to shake off habits that have become so ingrained in your daily life. Talk to the counseling and mental health staff at your college for assistance in developing new habits.
- Share only what you want to share: I admit to being guilty of asking military or veteran students to comment on their experiences if they want to, because so many of them are so articulate and knowledgeable that I see them as a great resource for other students. I only do this if a student has already publicly disclosed their experience and has demonstrated a willingness to talk about it. However, as a military student, you should remember that you don’t have to share anything about your experiences. They are private and you have every right keep them that way. Besides, your feelings about this may change, depending on the subject or situation. The Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs Veteran Guidelines and Best Practices in the Classroom explains that some students may experience a “flight or fight” response when a professor asks them about their combat experience. If this happens to you, all you need to do is respond with something such as, “I appreciate your interest, but I’m not comfortable discussing that right now. Maybe another time.” That will keep the exchange professional and the professor and other students will respect you for it.
No matter what you decide to study or where you decide to attend college, these tips can help you manage the difficult challenge you may face as a military student. The most important thing to remember is that your school offers many resources to help you, and your fellow students, faculty members, and administrators are there to offer assistance and support along the way.