From Soldier to Student: Making the Transition to School After the Military

This is a guest post by licensed social worker Jodi Witt.

Making any transition in life can be challenging. Moving from one lifestyle, such as a military or combat scenario, to a civilian or student setting brings with it difficult situations in everything from social interactions to handling the classroom environment.

For the nearly one million veterans who have chosen to go to get their masters in criminal justice after serving, the transition from military to school is often cited as the most difficult aspect of getting a degree; however, schools — and individuals — can take steps to make that transition easier and ensure that the soldier finds academic success.

Common Problems Among Veterans

Imagine this: You’ve spent 18 months in theater on a constant state of high alert. You’ve witnessed death and destruction that defies description. Such living conditions could rattle even the strongest of nerves — and once you’re out of that situation, the feeling of being in danger does not go away immediately.

It’s quite common for veterans who return to school after serving in combat situations to have psychological or emotional issues stemming from the experience, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Even those who weren’t in combat can still have problems, such as being on a high state of alert or awareness at all times or being sensitive to unexpected noises or movement. It’s important colleges recognize these issues and provide services to assist veterans, such as counseling, which will help vets adjust to civilian life and develop strategies for handling life outside the military.

Social engagement is another issue that’s common among service members attending school. In some cases, veterans feel uncomfortable answering questions about their service asked by well-meaning classmates; in other cases, they have a hard time finding others they can relate to in the civilian setting. Most of their fellow students do not share the military experience, making it more difficult to find common ground.

Veterans can also have more practical problems when they transition from the military to school, such as time management problems. In the military, days are structured with every moment accounted for. In the school environment, students tend to have more freedom, and some soldiers struggle with the idea of managing their own schedules. And while the military does provide educational assistance through programs like the GI Bill — and a specific school might provide a military scholarship — students might have trouble making ends meet, especially if they are caring for a family.

How to Ease the Transition

Understanding the issues veterans face is only the first step in helping them transition from military life to an academic environment. Although many colleges are military-friendly, meaning they provide a wide array of services to help service members succeed in school, there are some things individuals can do to make the change easier.

Provide opportunities for engagement. A recent study indicated that those students who engaged with their school and fellow students, whether through a club, sport or volunteer activity, reported feeling more comfortable with the school environment.

Encourage veterans to share their experiences. Although some might not want to talk about their experiences in the field, others may wish to make presentations or lead discussions on topics related to their experience. Some veterans report that they appreciate opportunities to apply their experiences as part of the learning environment as well.

Build a support system. It’s very difficult for veterans to make the transition from military to school without help. It’s important, then, that they have a robust support network. At some schools, a veteran’s center provides opportunities for networking and access to support services. On other campuses, the support network is more informal. Veterans should seek out people who can provide guidance or even just a listening ear to help make the transition go smoothly.

Managing any transition, whether it’s a move to a new city, a new job or something like switching from military to civilian life, can be challenging if the right support and resources aren’t in place. If you work with veterans, or are the family member of a former service member, understand these issues and take steps to help ease the change. Doing so ensures our members of the military have the educational success they deserve.

About the Author: The wife of an Army veteran, Jodi Witt has experienced firsthand the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life. She works as a licensed social worker, helping soldiers transition back to home life.

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