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Helping Veterans Make a Successful Transition

by Todd Carlson, Program Coordinator, Military and Veteran Affairs Northern Arizona University

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As a veteran education benefit certifying official, I have the distinct opportunity to help the current generation of veterans transition from military life into the university. It is rarely an easy transition. The current environment which many of our veterans leave immediately before becoming civilians can be drastically different than the one they will experience when they get home.

The university environment can be even more of a challenge with an entirely new set of acronyms, rules and culture. The key for any veteran to earn a degree is often the transition period immediately following his or her active service. Establishing the necessary assistance to guide veterans through this transition process has been the primary goal of our veterans center.

There are certain transition issues that are common to all student veterans and therefore easy to anticipate. Veterans wonder about how they utilize education benefits, how do they go about getting accepted into college, what colleges will accept military credit so they aren't starting from square one, and who is going to be available when they need help. However, when you add to this the stress of moving, losing a steady paycheck, and leaving all of their close friendships, and you can see how the potential for failure is all too possible. Knowing there is someone at the university that understands their circumstances and can help put them in touch with the right resources can go a long way ensuring they stay committed to their goals.

We have recently begun offering a training session for our faculty and staff to make our university employees aware of various veteran issues. I am careful to point out that veteran students can be exceptional learners, but there may be times when they need special considerations as they navigate the transition process. One of the dominating messages of this training is that there is no "typical" veteran, so they should not assume anything about the veteran's experience.

Though veterans may, in some cases, need some special services, we should not treat them any differently than the regular student population. That's not what the veteran needs. Ensuring the rest of the university is invested in the lives of returning veterans, and knows how to connect them with the school's veterans center, is a key part of the puzzle to ensure the student veteran is able to transition effectively.

One trait we may be able to attribute to most veterans is that they are acquainted with the concept of accomplishing the mission. They are used to handling challenging situations, and a university degree is just another mission that they will accomplish.

What many veterans forget, however, is that they never accomplished a military mission on their own. Every effort was a team effort and required the help of their fellow soldiers, seamen, Marines or airmen. Many veterans see the need for help from others as a weakness, and therefore feel compelled to accomplish their degree on their own without any outside help.

However, in the military no man or woman was on an island. Yes, you were expected to pull your own weight and complete tasks on time, but no mission was ever accomplished by an individual. Missions are accomplished by teams of people working together.

That is why an area for veterans to congregate can be so helpful in ensuring the success of student veterans. Here they can share their new "war stories" (i.e., which professors to avoid, the best class to fulfill the humanities requirement). The knowledge that others have dealt with the same issues and succeeded is often enough motivation to keep going and accomplish their new mission - a college degree.

Additionally, veterans should be encouraged to seek out assistance from the various college services that exist for specific reasons. There should be no shame in requesting a tutor. Which one of us didn't have a difficult time with some aspect of his or her military training and only survived by leaning on someone else who was strong in that particular subject? There should be no problems with seeking counseling or disability services. The residual issues of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are real issues that may require special considerations that university counseling centers or disability services can help resolve.

Veterans don't want to be treated any different than any other student, but they do have different experiences, and in some cases they need more services. Many just need a group of understanding people with similar experiences to lean on. Others need professional help to deal with the demons that challenge them every day. I regularly encourage our faculty and staff not to treat student veterans differently than they would anyone else. However, I also suggest they not be afraid to encourage them to fulfill their new mission by joining with a team of people (professionals and regular Joes) who have their best interests in mind. When we do, we ensure our country receives a new generation of veterans who will continue to serve by being productive members of society - ones with college degrees.

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