Easing Into Your First Year

Like many veterans, when I began planning my steps to transition out of active duty, I focused on maximizing my time and finishing school as quickly as possible. I matriculated at Columbia University in the fall of 2019, my transition time from active duty to college student is best described as nonexistent. After returning from deployment in July, I had to  jump through quite a few hoops to EAS out of the Marine Corps as quickly as possible. Within one month, I was in a truck heading to NYC with all of my valuables, and by the end of August I was taking classes while still unpacking my entire life into an apartment that was a third the size of my old home in North Carolina and triple the price. I started orientation, where I knew no one and I felt completely unprepared to begin my college career. Needless to say, my first semester at Columbia University was the exact opposite of what I had envisioned college life was like for most students. 

Throughout my time in service, I had a perception that college students attended parties, embraced the freedom of being out from under their parents’ watchful eye, and focused on their studies just enough to pass. While partying and treating college lightly may still be true for some 18 and 19-year-old freshmen, as a veteran who has been out of the classroom for quite some time it is quite a different experience. At top universities, the workload is anything but light. In my first semester, it was nearly impossible to relax while striving to take as many classes as possible. This left me feeling submerged in a torrential downpour of classwork. I signed up for a workload that was entirely too heavy for a freshman and veteran who had been out of school for nearly a decade. This stressful schedule led to  many sleepless nights, a strain on my relationship and personal life, and had an overall negative impact on my mental health. While I was able to maintain a strong GPA, this came at serious costs in other areas of my life. As I look back at my first semester, it’s clear that a well-paced and forgiving approach to your first year at college will set you up for success. Reducing stress and allowing you to truly embrace the opportunities that a university has to offer, and absorbing the tools to succeed at college. 

For many veterans, the desire to finish college as quickly as possible, get a job and enter back into a salary filled lifestyle seems incredibly enticing. My first year was a product of that same line of thinking. I assumed that I was capable of learning in the same manner that I had experienced in many military courses which closely resembles drinking water through a firehose. I felt I could handle the information with relative ease. However, I quickly discovered that a top tier university expects an even heavier workload. Professors expect you to promptly grasp concepts in a short period and retain the information. I forced myself to go all in by jumping into the fire feet first, which led to a lot of headaches and unnecessary struggles that could have been avoided. In your first year at a university, you are in a critical moment of your education; most importantly, you have the time to take things slow and enjoy the college lifestyle. Use the first semester to explore a few different classes that will allow you to ease into the workload and find out what you are most interested in learning. Take the opportunity to engage with your professors as much as possible; this is important for your education and provides the professors with a better understanding of what their students need to learn. 

In addition to taking it easy in your course selection in the first semester, many universities offer programs that assist veterans in preparing for the rigors of college life. At Columbia University, they host a “jumpstart series” for transitioning veterans and various students that are attending college after a career. The Jumpstart program is one week-long and is a series of seminars that re-teach you “how to learn” in a classroom setting. Learning how to learn is an invaluable asset for the veteran students who have not been in an academic classroom in 5-10 years. I recommend everyone attend these types of programs because they will help give you the tools to be highly successful in your first year back in school. Looking back on my first year, I regret not maximizing my opportunities to learn and prepare for the difficulties of university level classes.Making the most of these resources will drastically improve your performance in the first semester of college and reduce the stressors inherent with your transition from active duty, which will significantly improve your quality of life in your first year. 

For many veterans the transition to an autonomous learning environment can be stressful, and the lack of preparation prior to starting classes can create a significant barrier to success. By taking the time to slow down in your first semester, using helpful educational resources, and taking time to gather as much information about your university before the start of class you will increase your chances of success, and pave the way for a better learning experience. You have served your country and proven that you can overcome adversity, adapt, and problem solve through hardship. Now is the time to use your hard-earned benefits to support you as you discover what new educational opportunities and career paths are best for you. Enjoy the advantages of college and embrace the opportunity to slow down and learn how to learn without sacrificing your mental health and personal life.