The emotional challenges of student veterans on campus

This Veterans Day, Americans will honor the heroism and sacrifice of the nearly 22 million men and women who have served in the U.S. military. Among them will be student veterans. Since 2009, nearly one million veterans have benefited from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which has allowed them to pay for educational expenses such as tuition, textbooks and housing.

There is no doubt this federal policy does exactly what it was designed to do – facilitates access to higher education and provides training benefits. This bill offers substantial financial assistance, but as my research shows, an important benefit is missing: What the Post-9/11 GI Bill does not prepare veterans for is the emotional and psychological stress linked to transitioning from military to student life.

The challenges of a new role

When servicemen and servicewomen leave the military and enter higher education, they exit one institution, with its set of values, norms and expectations – “the military” and enter into a new one – “the university.” Social scientists refer to this as “role exit.”

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These servicemen and women replace their physical training uniforms with jeans and sweatshirts boasting the university’s logo. They replace their rank – as corporal, for instance – with their year in college, such as freshman. In other words, they say goodbye to the world they know – including their comrades, and step foot on their college or university campus alone. In this transition, their identity shifts from warrior to student.

Through my work on projects funded by the Department of Defense and VA Office of Rural Health, I have closely examined this transition. And I can tell you it is anything but easy.

Campus and classroom experiences

In my conversations with student veterans, I found them struggling with their new identity. Many realize they are no longer a service member, but they do not, at the same time, feel like a student. As one student veteran told me, he had a “disjointed” identity. He was trying to figure out who he was in his new identity.

In the military, service members felt a sense of brotherhood, became leaders and found a life of meaning and purpose. In higher education, however, many student veterans experience isolation rather than belonging. Even when they find success, it is individual rather than team-based. Some find little to no life meaning. As one veteran said,

“You go from being somewhat important in the military, to having a purpose every day, to go home and, ‘Well there goes the wife to work.‘ I should be going to work too but I’m gonna sit here and do school work.”