Brian T. Gregg, Dana M. Howell, Anne Shordike; Experiences of Veterans Transitioning to Postsecondary Education. Am J Occup Ther 2016;70(6):7006250010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2016.021030
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© 2021 American Occupational Therapy Association
An increasing number of U.S. military veterans are entering postsecondary education with problems attributed to deployed military service. The primary objective of this research was to describe the lived experiences of student veterans transitioning from active military service to postsecondary education. Phenomenological interviews were performed with 13 student veterans who had transitioned from military deployment to postsecondary education. An overall essential meaning of “emerging in college culture” was manifested from three themes, supported by rich textural and structural descriptions of student veterans’ experiences: (1) repurposing military experiences for life as a student veteran, (2) reconstructing civilian identity, and (3) navigating postsecondary context and interactions. These findings highlight implications that may facilitate occupational therapists’ efforts in supporting the needs of student veterans.
If I had one thing it would be discipline. Because I was already used to showing up at 0800 [in the morning]. And I show up every day in class. I’m always on time to class. . . . Before the Marine Corps, I would not have had that.
And I think that is a remnant from the military. I am very disciplined with my time. Even . . . study hours are incorporated in there. . . . I think those are the two best parts left over from the military that have helped me the most.
Especially in a leadership position, I had to constantly ask myself, what might come up that might prevent my plans for this weekend. I can’t even tell you how many times I had to leave parties or leave hospitals visiting people where one of my soldiers got drunk and did something stupid. So, not to have like all these guys depending on me, weighing on my mind. . . . I knew there would always be something to worry about [in school], but it is not as grave as something happening to one of your guys.
I enjoy having freedom, having the ability to make my own decisions, craft my own schedule. . . . I could plan something 6 months ahead of time that I could actually stick to come hell or high water. . . . You know, the stuff that I despised while I was in the military.
As soon as I got out, I joined a Marine Corps league. And I ran into Marines so, ah, the veteran thing helped me a lot cause they had already been there a year or two and already figured out how to handle it. So, we would talk about it. We would drink. . . . I just learned to not voice certain things. . . . They [other students] don’t really understand the inner fighting. They don’t know. So, you kind of have to bottle it up. . . . You have to find people that have kind of [gone] through that same kind of thing. Especially on a deployment.
I felt like I had built so many accomplishments for myself in the service, and I felt like I was somebody and then whenever you start over and everything is brand new, I just kind of felt like I was lonely.
I took a lot of pride in what I did and . . . I was a crew chief, mechanic on Black Hawks and on hydraulics, aircraft hydraulics. And it was not a very, um, female-oriented field and, you know, I took a lot of pride in being able, being (1) accepted by my male counterparts, which can be a challenge and (2) being not only good at what I did, but great at what I did . . . and [losing] that identity was really difficult. No longer being able to say that . . . that’s who I was, was probably the hardest part.
I used to be a platoon sergeant and it was like going from being the teacher, I was the role model, I was teaching the classes when we had downtime. Then, [transitioning] from that to being in the background, not being up in front. And really seeing things from the perspective of my soldiers, you know. Trading roles entirely, going from teacher to student. . . . That was what was hard about it; it was foreign.
It was challenging at first because I felt very out of place. It was hard to feel that I was a part of the school . . . the whole culture of going back to college. Just because you know you are different because you are 10 years older than everybody else.
I felt secluded, so I forced myself to be a part of the university. I forced myself to go to the veterans’ resource center and ask them, can you please give me a list of organizations to be a part of. . . . I was bouncing around, and it was kind of scary to show up to different organizations until I found something for me.
I think that in the military, you underestimate, or maybe take for granted, that you wake up every day knowing exactly what you are going to wear, like how you have to have your hair, and you know these steps. And it really is routine; not to have that was the weirdest thing to me, at first.
I consider it my job now, because I am fortunate to get paid for it by the GI Bill, um, because of that, I approach it like I would any other job. Show up on time, do my work, uh, I approach it in the professional sense . . . achieving the best.
I have made an effort to speak to every one of my professors at the beginning of the semester and say, this is my situation, you know, I’m 32 years old, I have a 4-year-old at home, I own my home, I have animals I have to care for, you know. My husband, even before, he was a police officer, he worked third shift, so he wasn’t always available, and on the rare occasion . . . where it didn’t matter how much I tried, there was no way for me to meet the requirement, I had the reputation with my professors that we were able to overcome that.
I remember one of the first classes that I sat down in . . . you know in the first class when there are all those freshmen. . . . And the girl sitting next to me is like, “Hi, what dorm are you in?” Um, I am not in a dorm. “You live off campus; that is so awesome!” You know, I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to talk about anything. I didn’t know. . . . How do you talk about anything in your life? I had no clue what to say to any students in the beginning.
I didn’t feel comfortable at all having a conversation. Even people outside of school. Like when they say, “Hey what are you doing?” Well, I am going back to school. But I don’t want to say that, because I am uncomfortable. I do not know why I say, “I am going back to school, I am a nontraditional student, prior military, and I am using my GI Bill.” I always felt like I had to say that.
I was married, had a 2-year-old, and was 22. Where most college kids are between 18 and 22. So, they were talking about prom, where they went to high school, and what club they went to last night. You know, I am focused on school and going home to my wife and kids. . . . I was more focused on my teachers, whereas they are focused on the moment.
You know, veterans that have been deployed have dealt with so much that people just don’t understand. They just don’t understand because they have not seen what you have seen or done what you have done. It’s all a joke because they are looking at Call of Duty videogames thinking that is combat. When really it’s not . . . there is so much that you can learn about a veteran if you just sit down and talk with them for a couple of hours.
I don’t feel like I relate in any way other than commiserating over the usual homework assignment; that’s really our only common ground. It’s not that I haven’t tried to associate more with college students. It’s just I really don’t know how. ’Cause I don’t really want to come across like a mother figure.
In response to previous research suggesting the use of a transition coach to facilitate a holistic process addressing the transition needs of student veterans (DiRamio et al., 2008), practitioners should consider their ability to assess occupational performance problem areas of student veterans with the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure (COPM; Law et al., 2005). Goal setting may be initially addressed using the COPM as a holistic, client-centered assessment of veterans’ occupational performance.
Educators should liaise with local university counseling centers and veteran resource programs to assess the availability of veteran orientations, outreach programs, and remedial education courses. Veteran-specific programs facilitate a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community and promote well-being and success for veterans. Incorporating Matuska’s (2012) Life Balance model in campus veteran centers for transition assistance would be ideal because it focuses on four domains (health, relationships, identity, and challenge) commonly identified as problem areas for transitioning veterans. The Life Balance Inventory would provide a reliable and valid outcome measurement tool for such an occupation-based program (Matuska, 2012).
The prominent challenges veterans experience in social interactions highlight a performance skill practitioners can support for engagement in educational occupations (Simmons, Griswold, & Berg, 2010; Søndergaard & Fisher, 2012). Evaluation of social interaction outcomes (Fisher & Griswold, 2010) would provide an occupation-based outcome measurement for veterans in a natural context instead of a clinical setting.
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