Many Veterans decide to continue their education after leaving the military. Whether you recently left active duty service or it’s been many years since you served, going to college after military service can be challenging. For instance, you may sometimes find it hard to juggle the demands of school with the stress of your civilian life. Or you may get frustrated interacting with people who don’t understand your past experiences. It’s important to be aware of the difficulties you may have to deal with—and the steps you can take to overcome them.
What types of issues should I keep an eye out for while in school?
Some student Veterans find they have trouble taking their studies seriously. Although student Veterans understand the importance of higher education, the content covered in school may seem to have much less real-world relevance than some of the things you experienced in the military. The lifestyle and activities of other students who are not Veterans may seem unimportant or like a waste of time. If you’re not relating to your classmates, it may make you feel isolated or depressed.
“While the other students in my class seemed to be focused on tonight’s party, I was thinking about being back in Afghanistan where I was part of something bigger. That’s when I reached out and found other Vets on my campus, which helped a lot.”
College environments often include alcohol and drugs as a regular part of social activities. If you choose to drink, you may find that your alcohol use begins to interfere with your grades, job, or ability to get along with others over time.
Some Veterans experience problems with memory or concentration. It may be hard to pay attention in classes, focus on learning material, or remember what you have learned for tests and exams. Maybe you have trouble sleeping, feel constantly on edge, or have recurring bad nightmares or flashbacks of a traumatic event.
What can I do if I’m having a hard time going back to school as a Veteran?
Going from something familiar, like military life, to something new and different can be hard, but there are things you can do to help you be successful. Try to remember to:
“It bothered me when people would ask about my military experience in passing and then quickly become distracted with something else. Learning to say things like, ‘I’d love to tell you about it another time, over a meal or drink one day’ helped me to avoid situations that upset me and make sure that I was spending time with people who really wanted to listen.”
- Start with a few courses to ease the transition
- Reach out to other Veterans on your campus for social support
- Get to know your new professors, tell them you’re a Veteran, and ask for advice on how you can be successful in the classroom
- When studying, take as many breaks as you need and find a study partner when possible
- Take advantage of your school’s academic, tutoring, and academic counseling services
- Recognize your own signs of stress and look for daily ways to manage that stress
- Practice regular exercise and relaxation techniques to help reduce anxiety and improve concentration
- Participate in student activities to break down barriers and become part of the campus community
- Recognize that others may not agree with you or understand your military service; agree to disagree
- Be prepared for direct questions about your service, sometimes in very public, seemingly inappropriate situations; practice ahead of time how you would like to respond
- Respectfully decline to talk about things that make you uncomfortable
Your family, friends, trusted classmates, and professors can also be a good source of stability and support. Staying in contact with them may help ease the transition and provide you with a good source of feedback for your thoughts and concerns.
Take the next step – Make the connection.
“I was older than most of my classmates and didn’t see how any of them would ever be able to understand where I was coming from or what I had done. I really had to make an effort to explain how my experience changed my outlook on college.”
Every day, Veterans connect with resources, services, and support that effectively address the issues impacting their lives. If issues at school are interfering with your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, daily activities, or ability to study, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
- Your family doctor: Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center: VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans
- A spiritual or religious advisor
Explore these resources for helping Veterans address school-related issues.
Learn more about the possible associations between transitioning to school and other concerns such as feeling on edge, alcohol or drug problems, posttraumatic stress, and depression.
Student Veterans of America
This non-profit organization provides support to help Veterans succeed in higher education, achieve their academic goals, and gain meaningful employment.
VA GI Bill Website
This website is the home for all educational benefits provided by VA with tools and resources to help Veterans pursuing college degrees, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, or non-college degrees programs.
If you are a combat Veteran or experienced any sexual trauma during your military service, bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist—many of whom are Veterans themselves—for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA.
Discover resources especially for Veterans and Service members related to educational and vocational counseling, making the transition to academic life, and how to recognize other issues you may be dealing with.
VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Some problems while you’re in school might be signs of health conditions that need attention. This link will allow you to search for VA programs located near you. If you are eligible to receive care through the Veterans Health Administration, you can enroll in one of VA’s mental health treatment programs.