Going back to school? Advice from a fellow Vet

Currently, there are over 2.3 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, with that number growing every day. As of November 2011, the unemployment rate amongst veterans of these wars was 11.1%, which is roughly 3% higher than the civilian unemployment rate and approximately the size of the entire Marine Corps. After the signing of the Veteran Opportunity to Work Act, which was the only bipartisan jobs bill to make it to the President's desk this year, the number of unemployed veterans will hopefully come down.

With such a large number of vets unemployed, many, such as myself, have turned to school. In 2008, I decided to leave the military to become just one of the many other twenty-something veterans not far removed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had completed a fifteen-month tour in Afghanistan as an airborne medic with the 82nd Airborne, and I decided to try my luck in college because, hey, the grass is always greener on the other side, right? I have been out of Afghanistan for three years now, and I have done pretty much everything but kill the grass.

On the verge of graduating with an English degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, I can't help but look back and think about all the mistakes I made in my transition from war to college. Obviously, I must have done something right if I made it this far, but for the life of me I can't figure out how I went from surviving to succeeding. Despite my own cluelessness, I feel it is my duty to the veteran community to put together a tip sheet to help other veterans obtain a degree. Since I didn't do much right in regards to school, I guess instead of a tip sheet, this could be viewed as a "don't make the same mistakes as me" piece.

1) Don't start college immediately after getting back from war

While in Afghanistan, I spent what little Internet access I had applying to colleges. I was not even halfway through my fifteen-month tour in Afghanistan, and I was already planning what my student experience would be like. It gave me hope, but it also set me up for failure. Less than four months after returning from Afghanistan, I was attempting 18 credits worth of classes at a small community college in Wyoming. That may not sound that bad, but when you factor in the fact that I returned home with a traumatic brain injury due to a Humvee explosion, I had never before set foot in Wyoming in my life and this was my first ever semester in college, you can see how this might be a recipe for disaster. I highly suggest taking some time off to adjust to your new life outside of the military. However, if you decide you need to attend college immediately after leaving the military, at least attend a school in a familiar area.

2) Don't ignore service related issues before beginning school

I returned from Afghanistan with the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: a traumatic brain injury. I knew I could barely spell my name, I had double vision, and I knew I couldn't get through the day without a severe headache, yet I still enrolled in school fulltime. You may feel all right while still in the military, but you don't know how your mind and body will react in a strange new civilian world. Looking back, I have no idea what I was thinking. It got so bad that at one point, I was going to school for three hours every morning and then driving five hours round trip three times a week for medical appointments. I quickly found myself drowning in my medical issues, about to drop out and severely depressed. It wasn't until I took a semester off to get the medical care I needed from the VA hospital that I was able to succeed at being a student.

3) Don't take all of your general education courses first

I decided to use an advisor as little as possible during my early years of college. This was primarily because the small community college I was attending did not require students to meet with an advisor to choose classes. Being a college rookie, I just started going down the list of required courses. While it was rewarding to be checking off classes in an orderly fashion, in the long run it proved to be disastrous. I took so many low-level general education courses, that now I have to take entire schedules of upper-level, major-specific courses in order to graduate. Essentially, I went from easy in my first couple years of college to "I hate my life" in my junior and senior years. Make sure to use an advisor and take into consideration that choosing classes is just as important a decision as how many magazines you are going to carry on a mission.

4) Don't avoid campus

Before I even arrived on campus, I had made up my mind that I didn't want to be around civilian students. I had animosity built up because I sacrificed so much overseas, while it seems they just stayed home and had a good time. Every time I would look at a younger civilian classmate, I couldn't help but think I had spent longer in Afghanistan than they had spent on a college campus. Just like my First Sergeant would say, "That is the wrong answer, Airborne." My hatred was unwarranted and unfounded. It led me to move to the next town over, spending a lot of time alone and wondering why I could not transition into a non-military community. As veterans, it is our responsibility to not just lead the way overseas, but lead the way in bridging the gap between our community of veterans and our campus community. It is only through breaking down the veteran-civilian divide that we can truly begin to feel part of the strange new base we call campus.

5) Don't enjoy the honeymoon too much

When I returned from Afghanistan, I knew I had to go to school, but I wanted to take it easy, as well. I went from running mile after mile at 6:30am every morning in the Army, to taking elevators to go one floor up. After being out one month, I began to not wake up until 7:30am. Month after month, it seemed like I was waking up an hour later until one day I woke up at 11:00am and realized something was wrong. I took relaxation to another level to atone for the high-paced operation tempo of Afghanistan. Do not get lazy because having a sound mind begins with having a sound body. I know running and working out is the last thing a newly-minted veteran wants to do after multiple years in the military and fighting overseas, but it is essential to succeeding. You are going to have enough on your plate and the last thing you want to be concerned about is how you have let yourself go since being discharged.

Nearing the end of my journey from veteran to student-veteran, I cannot help but release a big sigh of relief. There were many times I thought I was alone and refused to ask for help when I should have. But just as I have been successful, I am sure all of my battle buddies will also be successful. It only takes getting acquainted with your campus veteran organization or veteran service organizations such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. There you will find you are not alone, and get tips just like the ones I have shared. And at the end of your journey, be sure to share your path to success so the next group of veterans beginning their college career deployment will make it through in one piece.

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Nick Colgin served four years with the Army's 82nd Airborne and deployed to Afghanistan from 2007-2008. While in Afghanistan, he received the Bronze Star and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. He currently attends the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.