Higher Education as a Civilian Incubator for Transitioning Veterans

Posted June 22, 2016 by James Schmeling

This editorial was written as the result of a collaboration between Veterans Coming Home and Student Veterans of America. Throughout this editorial there are short videos from the Veterans Coming Home project.

It’s interesting to think, as veterans, we need re-acclimation. I know that many veterans during their service, like myself, feel as if they never left the civilian world. We lived off base, shopped at malls, sent our kids to neighborhood schools, and other standard activities of daily life.

Concurrently, many of us worked in an environment that was foreign to our civilian peers who never served, including being deployed, living with our units, and of course, combat. We held security clearances and shared less about our jobs with our families and friends than our civilian counterparts. Our education and career paths were largely determined for us, as were our benefits, where we lived and worked, and so on.

WATCH: It Really Is a Different World

College, however, is all about choice. Everything from choosing a school, what majors to select, what student activities to take part in, where to live or what part-time jobs to take. Sometimes these are the first times we get to make informed decisions on our own. We’re around civilians who never served. Often, our faculty were not members of the military, opposite our instructors while we served. Things were different. Not bad, simply different.

I had an interesting experience when rejoining the civilian world after service. Mere months after leaving the military I enrolled at Iowa State University. I moved into the adult and graduate student dorms because I was considered an adult student at the age of 25. The first person I met was my roommate: also a veteran. Though he was a veteran of the Ukrainian military — rather than an “adversary” from the Cold War in which I had served — he was now my roommate. We never really got to know each other well, but we had a lot in common, having served our respective countries in the military.

Over time, I met other veterans in the dormitory: Army veterans, serving National Guard members, a spouse of a Navy service member who was at sea, a Royal Norwegian Air Force veteran and my next roommate: A Navy veteran. Within the “Adult Students on Campus” and “Adult Student Scholarship Fund” groups, there were Army and Air Force veterans, some from the then current era of service, others dating back to Vietnam.

I had a cadre of fellow veterans, of international students who were veterans, and of serving Guard members. This became home. Unlike some of the stories I read now, I was not having difficulty transitioning into higher education – I loved it! I was exposed to rigorous academics, new ideas, and found comfort in the familiar around me. My new peers provided a support system as we shared advice, experience, and, even, focus with one another. We raised money for other veterans and adult students.

WATCH: Breaking Veteran Stereotypes

Then something interesting happened. My friends and colleagues introduced me to their friends. I met new friends. People who weren’t veterans. People possessing diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Even as an undergrad, I was in a graduate and adult student dormitory. One person I met was a 75-year-old woman pursuing her degree who said it was “because it’s a lot cheaper than a nursing home and it keeps me young!” I learned to relate my military experiences to others’ life experiences. I heard alternative perspectives from around the world. From people pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees after varied business and industry roles, not affiliated with military service. I met students pursuing research in subjects I knew nothing about. My intellectual curiosity was sparked and my appetite for learning fed.

I noticed something else – the veterans who came to know each other bridged the “civilian-military” divide by engaging with others without military experience. We learned from each other, expanded our circles, and opened our minds and those of our peers who had never served. We rejected our pre-conceived notions. We built on the traits we had garnered from military service and went on to graduate. We pursued professional schools, graduate school, civilian careers, and ongoing military service. We built families. Became community and business leaders. Taught in local schools. We became civilians — during our education and after our service.

WATCH: For the Benefit of the Team

We didn’t have Student Veterans of America (SVA) during my transition. Today, SVA chapters exist on almost 1,400 campuses in all 50 states and four countries. I am proud to be a part of an organization that helps those returning from military service with their transition to civilian life and serves as the steering mechanism for navigating these veterans – each with his or her own experiences – to design and pursue their next mission.

As a nation, it is essential that all of us enthusiastically partner with SVA to ensure that this superior cadre of returning veterans transition successfully to civilian life. For they will ensure that the United States maintains and strengthens its competitive advantage in the global economy.

James Schmeling, EVP, Strategic Engagement, Student Veterans of America.