Tools for Adapting to a Successful College Lifestyle

After five years of service, I decided that it was time to leave the military and pursue a career in medicine. The reason for leaving the military varies for each person; however, I can say, anecdotally speaking, many individuals hold a level of uncertainty and doubt when attempting to solidify their choice to discharge. For many, going back to school after serving years in the military can be incredibly daunting. The objective of this article is to speak on my own personal experience while transitioning from the military to higher education and acknowledge the simple, yet often forgotten, practices that aid service members – including myself – in successfully acclimating back into academics. Although service members hold a unique set of skills acquired throughout the duration of their service, not all skills are applicable to the world of academics, and learning to tailor these traits and adapt to a new environment, through fundamental disciplines, remains a critical aspect in succeeding. As, although transitioning back into academics from military service can appear as an impossible, intimidating feat, in my opinion, so are the most worthwhile things in life.

Back Planning

Fundamentally, one of the most important steps in starting your journey back into academics is learning how to properly plan.

Ironically, this skill is something many service members are already proficient in and have familiarized themselves with a specific type of planning – back planning. For those who aren’t familiar with the phrasing, the term back planning is relatively intuitive and is exactly what it sounds like – you have a goal, and you plan backward to figure out the appropriate steps to achieve that goal. Whether it is planning a timeline for a mission or when a fire team is going to get chow, back planning is something many service members have already practiced and can be used when planning your educational goals.

Here’s a simplistic example. Say you want to go to medical school. By using back planning, you would first figure out you need to acquire a bachelor’s degree, and then you would pursue an undergraduate program best suited to aid you in accomplishing your ultimate goal – med school. This strategy can be applied to any academic goal one may have, whether it’s finding a school, finding a major, or simply figuring out which classes you want to take next semester. Failure to back plan can cause a student veteran to either matriculate into a school that may not support their long-term goal or cause a veteran to accidentally take unnecessary classes during their undergraduate education – ultimately, wasting time and money.

I would argue, instead of focusing on gaining admittance into the highest ranked school, prioritize a school that not only aligns with your future goals but will aid you in accomplishing it – whether that be a graduate program or entering a professional career. In short, don’t decide on what school you want to go to and then search for a major; decide on what your long-term, professional career will be, and then think about significant influences – such as location, size, type of people, degrees offered, etc. Doing so will allow you to correctly choose the appropriate school for you and can expedite the overall undergraduate process. Just remember, planning is utterly useless without action; however, working towards your goal is much easier when implementing a detailed back plan.

Loss Identity

Veterans can sometimes question their identity when considering pursuing higher education – or worse, feel embarrassed.

The military, for many, creates an environment where values and goals are shared, creating strong bonds and cohesion within a unit. As a result, for many student veterans, their identities closely resemble the work they performed and relationships they held while in service – instilling a sense of value and worth in themselves. So, why is this a problem? Constantly being surrounded by like-minded individuals is reassuring and motivating; however, when a service member leaves the military, they can potentially lose the sense of value and worth associated with their work and friendships built while serving.

The problem of losing one’s identity is prevalent in high-performance professions but establishing intrinsic validation within yourself is a huge step in creating a stable foundation for your academic career and life after the military. When battling this hurdle, remind yourself that these feelings are normal. It is important to remember that being in the military was not your sole identity. Yes, it was a huge part of who you were and still are, but now is a time to chase your other dreams or create new goals for yourself that you would not have achieved while you were on active duty and restricted with military responsibilities. Push yourself to try new things and put yourself out there. Know that the transition period can be difficult but is just a normal part of the process.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Identifying the strengths and weaknesses that you may have developed while in the military is another tool in preparing yourself for college. Dependence on others around you and the habit of having superiors make decisions for you is a common practice in much of the military; however, universities will not have anyone holding you accountable to a certain standard. This problem, if you will, is twofold. In the military, leaders hold subordinates to a certain standard, and they are accounted for in every aspect of life. On the other hand, it is easy to become dependent on this structure by allowing others to make decisions for you. Academia does not have this constant leadership and accountability to ensure your success. Instead, you must hold yourself accountable to your own schedule and standards. It is crucial to learn (or maintain) this new self-sufficiency when starting your academic journey.

In my experience, veterans who fail to recognize the independence and self-reliance necessary for success in school often fail to see the grades they were hoping for – or worse, fail to finish their degree. This is entirely unnecessary and avoidable by any student veteran if the correct steps are taken beforehand. Surround yourself with supportive people, whether other college students, student veterans, or roommates to help you stay accountable, as this is an excellent way to counteract the threat of failure. Know that regardless of the university you may be attending, there are numerous resources out there specifically for veterans – so use them. Also, do your best to stay connected with your close friends, even just a check-in once a week can make a difference. Acknowledging that the college environment is fundamentally different than the military and recognizing that self-sufficiency is crucial before starting school will significantly benefit you when first beginning your academic career.

Every veteran has the aptitude, mentality, and tools necessary to accomplish their goals in the classroom and professionally. Take pride in your choice to go back to school at an older age to further your education. Looking back on your military career and identifying all that you have achieved and learned will provide you with a smoother transition. I hope by assessing your military career and identifying the key takeaways (both good and bad), you will be able to have a smooth transition into college and, ultimately, your professional career! There will be challenges, but I am confident that you can succeed if you make the necessary adjustments and stay determined!