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Back to School: Transitioning from Servicemember to Student

Students going back to school

The transition to a classroom after serving in uniform can be a challenge for Veterans, especially those who are first-generation college students. If you're feeling uneasy about going back to school, you can adapt your thinking by focusing on success in the next phase of your life.

"Negative self-talk can interfere with learning," said Dr. Jennifer Fog, a licensed psychologist at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. In this article, Fog addresses some of the concerns Veterans might have about going back to school. Her bottom-line message? You've dealt with big challenges before - you can do this! Many resources are available from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), colleges and universities, and student Veterans organizations to help you succeed.

What was I thinking? I can't do this.

Many people have doubts or second thoughts after deciding to take on something new or different, according to Fog. What counts is what you do about them. Look at the facts to determine whether your thoughts are realistic. For example, older students reentering college, on average, perform one whole grade point above their younger counterparts, Fog said.

"Fatalistic thinking keeps you from trying. Feel the fear and forge ahead. How many times was that your motto when you served?"

I'm too old to go back to school.

While it may seem as though students are younger than you, you'll also find people in the workforce and other Veterans who are returning to school. "You're never too old to learn," Fog said. "Every day, you are one day older and one day wiser - if you use that day to focus on your goals."

I can't learn or concentrate the way I used to.

Many things compete for our attention every day, including work, family, home, health and financial issues. To help you learn and concentrate better:

  • Pace yourself by easing into coursework and school life. Taking too many courses at once may cause you to feel anxious and overwhelmed, which can make it harder to focus or concentrate

  • Get involved with your local Student Veterans of America chapter or help create one. This will provide you and your fellow student Veterans with the team and social support network you may be missing from active duty

  • Find a suitable place to study. If noise, activity or other people distract you, choose the library over a coffee shop or home as a study spot

  • Find a team you can study and work with, or join or create a study group with other student Veterans. Like your fellow Servicemembers, fellow students can provide needed support and help you stay focused and motivated

  • Take breaks. If you find yourself getting distracted while studying, get up for a few minutes and stretch your legs, get something to drink or get a few minutes of fresh air

  • Stay rested, exercise and eat healthy. Lack of sleep can make it hard to focus and learn. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and staying physically active will help you learn better and reduce stress, which also can interfere with concentration

"If you have a health issue that may be affecting your learning, colleges and universities offer special evaluations and accommodations to help you learn," said Fog. "VA also has a variety of support services tailored to your needs."

I'm different from other students. They won't understand me - or what I've been through.

"It can be hard to relate to younger students when your whole life has been so different," said Fog. You may have dealt with war, death, survival - what it means to be an active-duty member of the U.S. military." But more and more Veterans are going back to school each year. Some colleges and universities have Veteran mentors, counseling services and support groups. VA also has support groups for Veterans transitioning back to school. Seek out other Veterans on campus. Let other students and your professors know you're a Veteran.

I have too many problems to succeed in school.

Many people returning to school have problems and responsibilities related to finances, jobs, family and health. They go back to school to better themselves and, hopefully, address some of the problems they face. Remember that VA offers peer support, therapy and medication for those who need it.

Other things to keep in mind and keep you going, according to Fog:

  • On average, a college graduate will earn nearly one million dollars more (PDF) than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime. So stay focused!

  • Skills that made you a good Servicemember will make you a good student. These transferable skills include: being able to stick to a schedule, listen, problem-solve and maintain discipline; being responsible; keeping a commitment; and having future direction

  • The Post-9/11 GI Bill (PDF) provides financial support for education and housing to those with at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001, or individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days

  • VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Education (Chapter 31) is a program tailored to serve Veterans with a disability rating over 10 percent or a memo rating over 20 percent. This program may provide you with better support than the Post 9/11 GI Bill and, combined with the Post 9/11 GI Bill, may extend the months of your educational benefits. If you think you may have a service related disability, be sure to apply.

"Stop scaring yourself with "I can't messages," said Fog. "Even the thousand-mile trip begins with the first step."

Read More

Make the Connection - Tips, resources, videos and thoughts from Veterans about returning to school.

VA GI Bill - Information, tools and resources to help Veterans pursuing college degrees, on-the-job training, apprenticeships or non-college degrees programs.

Vet Center Services - Vet Centers offer Veterans readjustment counseling.

Student Veterans of America - National, campus-based student Veterans organization on over 550 campuses in all 50 states.

Updated September 17, 2012