Transitioning back into civilian life can be a shocking and disorienting adjustment for veterans and returning soldiers fresh off the battlefield.
Tom Blackburn, a ten-year Navy veteran, enrolled at Lorain County Community College last year in order to pursue an associate of science degree in public administration. Like many veterans, he is familiar with the struggles faced by service members upon returning home.
“Being in the service, you operate within a structure; you know where you have to be at what time. You don’t have to wonder about what to wear for job interviews, for example,” he said. “Those are all decisions [you] never have to make. Uncle Sam gave you a uniform and you know how to dress depending on what the function is. You operate within a bubble, where you’re told where you’re going to be, when to be there. Now you’re left to your own devices; how do you get somewhere? It’s all kind of new.”
LCCC, a nationally recognized Military Friendly School, provides support and service opportunities for veterans while they earn their degree in a timely manner.
Vietnam War veteran and Distinguished Professor of LCCC Dr. Bruce Weigl has also recognized the difficulties those who have been severely affected by their experiences in the military often face upon return.
“Veterans share an important bond and we know from a great deal of research that one of the most effective tools in dealing with veterans issues is utilizing peer support,” Weigl said.
A place to call home
The recent dedication of a new Veterans and Military Service Members student lounge and office last November has provided a home base for veterans and active duty service members to congregate and develop a sense of camaraderie and encouragement as they pursue their education.
“It’s a great place for [veterans] to come and relax for a little bit, talk to other vets and network about benefits that are available to them,” Blackburn said. “Other vets are a great resource to help each other and ask for assistance because we’re used to working as a team.”
“Today’s returning veterans deserve all the support we can give them, and then some,” said Garis Distelhorst, executive director of the Lorain County Community College Foundation as well as a veteran lieutenant of the Navy. “My best piece of advice [for veterans] is [to] look ahead into the future at the kind of life you want to have, at the kind of job/career you want to have, and then work every day to get yourself one step closer.”
Benefits for veterans
Finding a post-secondary school that is military-friendly with access to numerous resources for veterans in the transition process is a key first step, Weigl advised.
A key benefit to be utilized by service members is the GI Bill, the federal government’s primary educational funding program for qualifying veterans, active duty and dependents.
The number of veteran students and their beneficiaries accessing VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration] educational benefits across the United States has increased from 397,598 in 2000 to 564,487 in 2009 and to 1,014,227 in 2012, totaling over $10.5 billion in utilized benefits (in 2011 alone), according to the VBA Office of Educational Services.
At LCCC, veterans are offered opportunities such as career guidance, priority registration, academic advising/counseling, job search preparation and evaluation of military credit. With these resources, the transition to education and post-military life can be made easier.
“Some of the typical barriers and obstacles [veterans run into] can be just getting started in the process and understanding the paperwork involved in using their Veterans benefits and financial aid,” said Krista O’Neill, coordinator of counseling and advising services in Enrollment, Financial and Career Services at LCCC.
By meeting with a VA certifying official, veterans can set up an education plan for their future. Whether hoping to earn an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or master’s degree through LCCC and any of its 12 university partnerships, veterans have a plethora of options. Specialized orientations are provided as well as various scholarships pending on meeting specific requirements. All information can be found at lorainccc.edu/Veterans.
“I think a lot of veterans kind of feel funny about taking “free stuff” because they’ve earned their way all those years in the service,” Blackburn said, “..but these are benefits that they’ve earned, that they’ve paid for by serving their country.”
Veteran education rising
In the past 15 years, the percentage of veterans receiving post-secondary education has steadily increased. Of the projected 21,937,000 population of veterans in the United States, (with 866,481 in Ohio), nearly 40 percent of male veterans and 45 percent of women veterans have earned some form of a college degree, 2011 research by the US Department of VA found. Comparatively, 25 percent of non-veteran males and 29 percent of non-veteran females who delayed starting college earned some type of post-secondary degree.
Academic completion rates for veterans vary, with 67 percent of Air Force veterans, 47% of Army veterans, and 45% of Marine veterans acquiring vocational certificates or other degrees (associate, bachelor’s), according to a 2013 report published by the Student Veterans of America (SVA) service organization.
Veterans versus civilians
A major difference found between non-veterans and veterans included motivation.
Three out of four veterans who pursue a college degree are more likely to follow through to completion. Civilians who delay entry to college have a significantly lower chance of obtaining a degree, the SVA discovered.
“Veterans are mission oriented and used to being very busy during the day,” O’Neill said.
“Overall, [they] do very well [at LCCC],” O’Neill said. “The discipline and training they receive in the military translates very well to being a successful and disciplined student and we see this evidenced in their overall academic performance.”
Use your leadership and responsibility experience in the service as keys to the person you want to be. Look at the service as an important building block, and at LCCC as another,” Distelhorst said.
“[There’s] an old saying; today is the first day of the rest of your life. The service was yesterday; your future is tomorrow, and working on what you will be in the future is today.”