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Compound to Campus: Transitioning from the Military to Academia

Our military students and veterans are some of the best and the brightest on campus. They often make the highest quality students because of their maturity, dedication and military training. However, many experience challenges in adjusting from military life to campus life. Retired Lt. Col. C. Andrew Griffin describes what life is like for veterans on campus and what staff and faculty can do to make their campus military friendly and a supportive environment in which all students can thrive.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEd Jobs: Dr. Griffin, you are a retired lieutenant colonel with 31 years of service in the U.S. Army and now work as the director of military and veterans affairs at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Tell us about your path that led you to higher education and why you chose this field.

C. Andrew Griffin, Ed.D., Northern Arizona University: When I retired from the U.S. Army in 2000 with 22 years of active service I knew I wanted to pursue a second career in higher education. Therefore, I accepted a position with NAU Army ROTC as a military contractor serving as an assistant professor of military science, a position I held for nine years. During that time I also used my Montgomery GI Bill to obtain a doctor of education and began serving as an adjunct professor in the business college where I taught leadership and management related courses. In 2010, I was asked by NAU leadership to leave ROTC and establish the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. I have served as its director since. And in addition, for the past six months I have also been serving as the university's interim director for Scholarships and Financial Aid.

Hibel: In 2010, your university established an Office of Military and Veterans Affairs on campus. Why was this important?

Griffin: This was important because for the very first time our university was making a concerted effort to transform NAU into military friendly school dedicated to the recruitment, retention, and graduation of all military affiliated students; active duty, guard, reserves, veterans and their families. Our office, with three full-time staff and 10 student veterans, operate the military and veterans student center and serve as our military's advocate both on campus and in the surrounding community.

Hibel: There are numerous articles on veterans having difficulty adjusting to the role of being a student in higher education. What are some of the difficulties and why are veterans experiencing these?

Griffin: It is very common for military and veteran students to have difficulty transitioning from the military to the college campus. On our campus the average age of a military and veteran student is 29 - or 10 years older than a freshman student right out of high school. This is 10 years in age but many more years in maturity and life's perspectives. Understandably, it is going to be very challenging for our students to relate to the average freshman in their classes. In addition, though many military and veteran students may transfer with 15-30 credit hours, because most have come from online courses or military school credits, this may be the first resident campus they have attended so the campus is truly a new "base" experience with new peers, "uniforms", language, acronyms, a less disciplined environment, a new "job" of going to school, and with a small yet worrisome population of students and university staff and faculty who may not understand or appreciate the military. On top of this you commonly have military and veteran students who leave the service with financial difficulties, family issues, and occasionally post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, our heroes are very proud and many times are reluctant to come forward to seek help. Of course, all these issues can compound the difficulty of transitioning to the college campus. Therefore, our mission must be to serve as that safety net to catch and support when required.

Hibel: What can faculty and administrators do to help ease this transition from military life to campus life?

Griffin: The best case would be for these individuals to reach out to an office like ours to seek advice and training on the advantages and challenges of having military and veteran students on campus and in our classrooms. Yes, there are challenges, but also so many advantages; these are our nation's best, they are resilient, mature, dedicated, know the degree they want, will come to class, will participate, will achieve and graduate. And they have the Chapter 33 GI Bill to pay for it. So, they deserve our best.

Hibel: How is this transition different for part-time service members as opposed to active duty service members?

Griffin: As the military service members returns from armed conflict their transition back to the States can be quite different depending on whether they are full-time active duty or part-time Guard/reserves.

Studies have shown that for active duty returning to a military base the support and service safety net is already in place for both the service member and their families. They therefore have a nurturing and understanding support environment to deal with transition challenges. A Veterans Affairs study offered that 15 percent returning active military were diagnosed with PTSD, suggesting the service and support provided by the military community helped ease the transition from combat.

In distinct contrast, the same VA survey reported that 49 percent of returning part-time Guard/reserves were diagnosed with PTSD and suggested a causal effect of the lack of a viable service and support network in small town USA that was educated and prepared to provide a healthy safety net for those returning from combat and their families. The families, employers, and community in general did not appreciate the transition challenges being faced by these service members which lead to not only higher PTSD percentages but also the potentially related the issues of family breakups, unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse, and in extreme cases, homelessness or incarceration.

Therefore, the transitioning veteran arriving on the university campus to work or to seek a degree under Chapter 33, Post 9/11 GI Bill, may arrive with the same challenges. This reinforces the notion that we on the university campus must be educated and trained to provide that healthy nurturing safety net for both veterans and their families. I have witnessed that with this safety net in place the veterans and their family can have a healthier and quite successful transition from combat to education or employment.

Hibel: What are some "best practices" that either your campus has implemented or you've encountered elsewhere to help student veterans be a success on campus?

Griffin: Here is what we have done at NAU:
  • A chapter of the Student Veterans of America;
  • Military and Veteran Student Center that is like an USO but on campus that is staffed by veterans for veterans and offers both a relaxing recreational setting but also counseling and referral services to both on- and off-campus services and support for everything from PTSD to financial aid to family to academic counseling;
  • an academically accredited military and veteran transition course for first year students;
  • training for campus staff and faculty regarding the military student;
  • priority enrollment to make sure our students get first shot at the courses they need to remain on track to graduate;
  • deployment and redeployment withdraw and readmissions support;
  • military spouse scholarships so they can go to school as well;
  • partnerships with off-campus military organizations to include a veteran court and medical support;
  • accepting DOD TA for tuition costs for those eligible;
  • the Yellow Ribbon program for our veterans and their children;
  • a campus wide military and veteran advisory committee with the mission to support the retention ad graduation of our military and veteran students;
  • academic credit for military training and education;
  • postponing school charges until the VA pays.
Hibel: Selecting the right college for a veteran is an important choice. What type of questions should a veteran be researching and a college be prepared to answer?

Griffin: I would strongly recommend the veteran look deeper than a school saying they are "military friendly" when looking for a good fit. A veteran should be looking for services and support such as I have provided above. NAU is not alone in offering these, but we are honestly a good gauge for fulfilling your service and support expectations. Also, look for flexibility of classes such as online and if the school has your academic program. Last but not least, is the university located in a location that facilitates healing such as an outdoor setting?

Hibel: According to a recent Department of Veterans Affairs report, 1 over 24,000 veterans are not receiving their GI benefits. In response to this, the Student Veterans of America's executive director said, "The GI Bill backlog is making it incredibly difficult for many student veterans to succeed academically, let alone provide for their families. We need more calls to action like that issued by Ohio Governor ... when he urged for schools in his state to be more flexible in collecting tuition payments from student veterans due to backlog. 2 How is this backlog affecting the success of many student veterans? What can both schools and the government do to make the system more effective?

Griffin: First, let me say the Student Veterans of America is an outstanding organization and advocate for our student veterans.

A recent higher education research study indicated that four of the top five stressors for college students were related to finances. Many schools such as NAU understand that the VA is backlogged, commonly by as much as 10-12 weeks, in paying educational benefits. Therefore, the students are identified by our office, and in coordination with the bursar's office, payment is not required by the school until the VA pays. We also counsel our new students to submit their claims as soon as possible. Still, the backlog can put financial stress on our veterans as they need the 9/11 GI Bill support for living expenses as well as tuition, fees and books. Therefore, we also encourage our students to seek other forms of financial aid as well and we will reach out to community organizations such as the VFW when necessary.

Hibel: From the book, Progress in Educating Veterans in the 21st Century 3, the authors state that there are many preconceptions surrounding veterans. For example, they are not as intelligent, have a poor college aptitude or that the GI Bill makes them wealthy. How do you think these views affect veteran students on campus?

Griffin: I agree there is a misconception about our military and veteran students on campus. As I have stated above, these are truly misconceptions and it is our duty to train and educate our university community to both the challenges but also the many advantages of having military and veterans in our classrooms! We do this through a military and veteran advisory committee with cross-campus membership from academic counseling, student life, transfer evaluations, registrar, financial aid and bursar. In addition, there is not a week that goes by that we are not in front of a group of staff or faculty sharing our story, many times with the aid of one or more of our student veterans.

Hibel: Again referencing the book previously mentioned, the author writes, "By ignoring what veterans have learned in the military, our society essentially throws away the time and money invested into military training and experience that could be applied to vocations in the civilian world." 4 What are your thoughts on this statement?

Griffin: I would agree, and this is probably our biggest challenge on campus and nationally, NAU is not alone in this. Any quality school will always be concerned with its national academic accreditation and reputation. Therefore, they can be slow to accept the quality of military training, education, and work experience. That said, schools are beginning to take a closer look and positive ground is being made in this area. One example is the "credit for life experience" programs.

Hibel: You have been and currently are in positions of leadership. What transferrable skills did you use while in the Army that you use today as you lead your team at NAU?

Griffin: The military has taught me how to manage and lead and with a values-focused orientation. We should never take that for granted because it has been my experience good leadership and management skills are not as common as you may believe in many fields outside the military. I have developed a reputation as an effective leader, manager, trainer, team builder, and someone who can be counted on in the most challenging and stressful situations. And I developed these skills in the military.

Hibel: How valuable do you think team building skills will be for a veteran who is working in an academic or administrative department on campus?

Griffin: I cannot emphasize enough that the most valuable transferrable skills we have as former military are our values-oriented leadership, management, training, and team building. My experience is a case in point. I was hired by our university leadership, and I quote, "not for your experience in higher education, but because of your proven leadership, management, and team building skills and strong work ethic." My first two positions required all of these skills as I concurrently lead the establishment of the Office of Military and Veteran Affairs as well as the Office of Emergency Management. Both were new offices for NAU and required being able to bring the many various, and at times, conflicting, departments and individuals from across the campus community together towards success.

Then building upon that success, six months ago I was asked to take over and serve as the interim director of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid. I like to say I could not even spell financial aid. However, what they really needed was good old fashion leadership, organizational management, team building, and training to turn the office around. So, long story short, the values-oriented leadership, management, training, and team building skills, coupled with a strong work ethic I learned in the military have served me very well as I have climbed the leadership ladder at this university. I higher recommend higher education to those former military interested in the field of education. It has been a great way to transition from the military and quite rewarding.

Hibel: What advice would you give to someone who may be following in a path similar to yours making the transition from working in the military to working in higher education?

Griffin: I would first recommend seeking a position on the campus to get your foot in the door and begin developing a peer and mentor network of school leadership, staff and faculty. There are many positions on a university campus that translate very well to our military profession. Next, I would pursue a degree from the school. Use your GI Bill benefits to become an alum, then teach or pursue a service and support field as you further network and develop a trusted reputation and advance up the ladder.