As veterans, we share certain characteristics. Many of them make us better, stronger people. Many of us, however, struggle with social situations. Getting out of the military and joining the workforce is difficult enough socially; joining academia can be even more stressful. Entering a climate full of young adults who have just moved out of their parents’ house for the first time can oftentimes cause conflict. Here are some of the issues that can arise and how to deal with civilian college students.
What should I expect?
You should expect a change. It is not going to be what you are used to. In a normal college setting you will most likely witness “catastrophic” events in the lives of young people like break-ups, falling-outs, and individuals failing a class for the first time. It is important to check yourself and gain a good perspective. Most of these students have never dealt with the life-or-death situations we have seen, and these events that seem minimal to us may turn their whole world upside down. This is not meant to patronize traditional students in your school; just understand that they are in a different place in life than we are. We were all there once. Expect to see things you never saw on base. Colleges tend to be a place of free expression, and it is your responsibility now to be respectful of that.
Why should I play nice with others?
Putting aside the fact that it is just good manners, you may learn something! We have been out of the academic world for some time and may need some help getting used to it again. These peers are likely to be your new friends. While we may have the life experience, they have the college experience, which goes a long way in a college atmosphere. When it comes time to register for classes, study for finals, or tackle a difficult homework assignment, you should ask for help from your peers.
“They’re just stupid kids”
Whoa, hold up! Harsh right? Well, that was my attitude when I got to school, and I was dead wrong. First of all, they are not just kids. Many of your new peers are actually paying for their own education and living expenses on their own. Many are balancing full-time jobs and classes. These young adults have just as much to offer us as we have to offer them. Understanding that we have different perspectives, and using that to progress will get you ahead.
What can I learn from them?
All the things that worry you about getting back into school, traditional students will have direct experience in. Whether you forgot how to effectively take notes, actively read, study for exams, or you’re concerned about navigating the campus, these are all things you can learn from your peers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most traditional students are glad to meet someone with a different background and help out.
How to handle these issues
So how do you actually handle some of these interactions?
Chances are at some point you will get some variation of the infamous question, “So what did you do over there/did you ever kill anybody?” As veterans we know this is one of the most wildly inappropriate questions you can ask, but most people don’t know that. Understanding that many civilians do not understand that question to be offensive is paramount. Take a breath, relax, and politely inform the individual that is not a polite question to ask. Most of the time they will have not meant any harm and will apologize.
The first time I came into contact with someone in crisis over a break-up or other personal drama I considered minimal, negative thoughts came racing into my mind: “You don’t know what real problems are, stop freaking out.” Luckily I didn’t open my mouth then. Again, it is important to understand that everyone is at a different place in life. Where many of us have been able to successfully live on our own for years, some traditional students are away from families for the first time and may not be in a good place to deal with an event like this.
What if somebody makes a negative comment about the military or the wars you have fought in? Before you lose your cool, remember where you are. In an academic world, you will do more justice with a polite rebuttal than a swarm of curses or worse. If you feel obligated to, make your point. Prove yourself to be right. If not, walk away or ignore the individual.
Dealing with traditional students can seem painstaking at first, but if we drop our egos and understand how much they can help us and truly connect with these individuals, we will learn a lot. It is important to remember that no matter what your background is and no matter what theirs is, we are all in the same atmosphere now. Instead of separating ourselves as “student veterans” and “traditional students,” accept that we are all just students. It will make your college experience, and your entire transition into civilian life, much easier.