March 27, 2017

College and the Returning Veteran – Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part post specifically providing advice to military veterans who are exploring getting a degree. In part 1 I covered my own personal experiences and described how planning for your education can be treated like a field exercise. In part 2 I now continue by exploring the unique advantages and disadvantages veteran students will face while pursuing their education.

Your military past gives you unique advantages.

You’ll find, as a veteran, that in some ways you are going to stand out from the crowd. When it comes to common student worries, there are certain things you won’t have to worry about. Most of the students around you will be struggling to finance their education with few options available. You have a wider variety of answers to these problems because of your service. Be familiar with them and use them.

Use the GI Bill. This one is the most obvious of your advantages, so I won’t go into detail with this one. Just make certain that you know what portions of the GI Bill apply to you, and what benefits specifically apply to you. Are you eligible under Chapter 30? Chapter 33? Hook up with the VA and find out.

You may get Vocational Rehab. The GI Bill isn’t the only benefit you may be eligible for. You may be able to receive voc rehab through the VA if you meet certain conditions such as a service-connected disability or are undergoing long term physical rehab. In some cases this can be used with the GI Bill, and in others it is an alternative. If you are eligible, compare and contrast to see which best fits your circumstances.

There are scholarships for you. It seems like there is a scholarship for everything these days. Veterans are no exception. Any number of organizations provide scholarships specifically for veterans who are seeking a degree to use in the civilian world. These include groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Disabled American Veterans. They are there for you, you earned them, use them.

Your military past gives you unique disadvantages.

It’s not something we like to talk about much, but the simple fact is that many of us leave our military careers with distinct difficulties as a lasting legacy. Some of these issues are physical, some are mental, but all of them represent potential roadblocks to a civilian education and career. Be cognizant of these issues and make certain that they are a part of your planning.

Physical disabilities must be accommodated. If you have physical disabilities as a result of your service to your country, you are entitled to certain rights and protections under the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act schools have to ensure that you have access to all required courses, facilities, and resources. Whether this means ensuring that multi-stories have elevators and building entrances are wheel-chair accessible or permitting service animals to be in the classroom with you, it is the obligation of the school to ensure you are accommodated.

However, do not take for granted that these things will simply be in place. If you have a physical disability requiring accommodation be certain to inform the school through the appropriate channels in advance. Publically funded schools all have a department of Disability Services specifically for this purpose.

Remember, schools are not allowed to deny you access on the basis of your disability. However, if you do not inform them in advance you need a service animal or such you could find yourself dealing with unfortunate and unnecessary roadblocks that take time to remove. Be certain you are including any physical accommodations ahead of time in your planning.

Mental disabilities must also be accommodated. While physical disabilities are often obvious, and people will usually be sympathetic to your needs, mental health issues can often be more difficult to negotiate when it comes to dealing with instructors and fellow students. Your service connected mental health issues are just as protected as your physical disabilities. Regardless of whether it is traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or an anxiety disorder, there are steps both you and the university can and should take to plan around mental health issues related to your service.

These accommodations and steps can be fairly minor. For my part I found that sitting in the back of the classroom near a door helped reduce PTSD related anxieties, knowing that if I needed to I could step out of the classroom for a breather. My instructors were all aware of the fact that I would occasionally need this owing to my engagement with the Disability Services office on campus, and so I was never dinged for the few occasions where this occurred.

They can also be fairly major. The university I attended conducted some of their classes online, allowing me to have the “buffer” of a computer between me and the sometimes crowded classrooms that could be a source of anxiety for me. I found that, while some traditional students struggled in online classroom structures I was able to excel thanks to that extra bit of “safety” built into the environment. Some universities even provide entire degrees online, such as Ohio University, USC Dornsife, or the University of Florida. These programs might be ideal for someone with a severe mental health issue related to their service.

In closing.

In 2013 there were over a million veterans attending college using the GI Bill. With this many veterans engaged in an education there is a wealth of experience and a number of tools out there for dealing with the unique challenges and advantages you’ll be bringing to your own educational efforts. These range from broad programs like the GI Bill and the Americans with Disability Act to individual tips and practices such as backwards planning and preparatory checklists. Exactly how you negotiate them is up to you, but the tips above should give you a few starting points in your path to a degree as a student veteran.

James Hinton is an army veteran with three combat tours, one B.A., and most of an M.A. under his belt. He lives in Idaho where he trains his four daughters on small group tactics and escape and evasion drills.

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