Hot Wash: A Year After Separation

After serving in the military for over 10 years, I was ready for a change of pace. It would have been easier for me to stay another 10 years to retire, but I wanted a new challenge. Two weeks after I started terminal leave in January 2020, I attended a community college to complete prerequisites and transfer to a 4-year university. How hard can it be to transition from being in the military to becoming a full-time student?

Being active duty for 10 years, I already knew what was expected of me; I knew where I needed to be; I knew what my responsibilities were, and I was an expert in my job. Some of the skills I learned in the military helped me succeed, whereas some parts actually hindered my experience as a student, due to having a completely different set of challenges and expectations. I hope that you will be able to adapt yourselves accordingly from my lessons learned.

Rank Structure

The military’s rank structure is like no other organization, and it is almost non-existent in college. You have your Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, Department Head, and the enlisted rank structure. You didn’t bother your supervisors unless you really needed to, and you just got things done when they told you to. I had a really difficult time getting over this subconsciously during my first semester at Cal. I barely talked to my Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), teacher assistants (TAs), and professors because I didn’t feel like I needed to bother them with things that I could possibly figure out on my own. Although I grinded through my coursework, I ended up struggling. Fast forward to my second semester at Cal, I had realized what I was doing and how it hindered my learning. I started to communicate with my GSIs and professors by asking questions, going to office hours, and essentially building rapport. This past semester has been the most rewarding of my college experience to date. Being able to express myself to my GSIs and professors was liberating and produced conversations for my classmates as well. Most GSIs and professors welcome that kind of conversation with their students. GSIs are also students like us, and my professors treated all of us students as peers. They didn’t want us to just memorize; they wanted us to bring up questions, challenge what was being assigned, objectively read, analyze, form our opinions, and voice those opinions in lecture and/or section. This is very different from the military culture. I challenge you to break out of the rank structure. Ask questions, go to office hours, play devil’s advocate during lectures/discussions. I think you will get a lot more out of your education this way, and I feel like the GSIs and professors will recognize your work.

Lesson learned: Professors and GSIs/TAs are not your “boss” per se, and they welcome criticism (tactfully). Engage with them; trust me, your learning experience will benefit from it!

Embracing the Student Veteran Label

I didn’t embrace the student-veteran label during my first two semesters out of the military. I hid my identity to avoid possibly being treated differently, whether that was being given extra attention, a little slack on coursework, or being ostracized. I wanted to be treated like a normal student, but unfortunately, that is not possible. We, student-veterans, are unique and have different needs compared to most of our peers. Some of us are married, have children, work, deal with service-related health issues, and we have “real world” experience. Our lives are a little more hectic, our outside responsibilities take time away from our school work, and we’re a little more mature than a traditional student. For my first two semesters, I bottled it up and tried to create a new identity for myself that didn’t include being a student veteran – I wanted to be a student. Those were probably the worst two semesters I’ve had in my college career. I didn’t know who I was, and I was essentially dealing with an identity crisis. I felt like I didn’t fit in, and I held back from voicing my opinions during class because I didn’t want to out myself as being a veteran. During winter break of 2020, I came across a research opportunity as being a part of my major. I wanted my research to be focused on student veterans because I felt like it was an important subject that needed to be explored more. After doing a literature review of the topic, I began to embrace being a student veteran. I realized the strengths that I have as a student veteran and how my attempt to suppress that identity was actually hurting my learning experience.

Universities are accepting us because we are student veterans. Universities aren’t accepting us out of pity; they are not giving us a free ride just because we are veterans, but they value what we bring to the university as veterans.

Lesson learned: Embrace your student veteran strengths, and use what you learned in the military, and apply it to your studies.