In 2015, Texas was one of three states with the largest population of U.S. military veterans, totaling 1.5 million. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that only 36.5 percent of veterans who leave active duty do so with some college or even an associate degree. Shifting gears to civilian life means transitioning, in most cases, to a new career path and that often requires additional education.
In the fall 2016 term, Tarrant County College counted more than 2,200 active-duty or veteran students on its rolls, with another 458 military-connected students using Department of Veteran Affairs Education Program benefits.
A veteran herself, Joy Gates Black, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Student Success, knows the value of higher education to military-connected students. “Through the old GI Bill, I was able to pursue my education while on active duty and complete my degrees after leaving the military,” she said. “This was a great opportunity for me and for many other first-generation college students.”
With a significant portion of the student body that is military connected, meeting the needs of this group is important to TCC. “They have given so much,” said Anthony Walker, director of Student Success and Online Advising. He admits that these students face myriad, unique issues when considering college, including the cultural differences between civilian and military lives. “Veterans are much more intentional and have a clear-cut objective,” Walker said. “A traditional student, ranging from 18 to 20 years old, may be less disciplined. The veteran’s thought may be, ‘This is what I served for? You have no idea.’”
Before coming to TCC, South Campus student Jason Roberts, who served in the Texas Army National Guard, said he was concerned about adjusting to being among civilians due to their lack of understanding. “I spent all my adult life in the Army and now, I had to try to assimilate,” he said. His concerns were justified. “It was like I had to monitor and censor all that I said.”
Chris Hunt, the veterans’ counselor at the Northeast Campus and a U.S. Air Force Desert Storm veteran, relates. After 10 years in the military, he says he is still transitioning.
For our student veterans, transitioning into student life is often difficult, particularly for those who have recently returned home from active duty and are still adjusting to civilian life. Unlike the structured environment of the military, colleges and universities have a wide array of campuses, departments and administrative areas that can be difficult to navigate.
Communication can be a challenge with TCC and the Veteran’s Administration as military-connected students try to understand what benefits are available. Even attempting to register can prove daunting, prompting them to give up before registration is complete.
Keri Wilcox, president of the Northwest Campus chapter of the Student Veterans of America (SVA), knows all too well how frustrating registering for college can be for military-connected students. After getting frustrated with the process, her son, a U.S. Army veteran, walked away for a year. “What seems simple to us, seems like a foreign language to veterans because the military operates so differently,” she said. Her son returned after Wilcox put him in touch with the right people to assist him. He is now in his second semester at TCC.
Darylrion “Dee” May, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, also experienced frustration when trying to register for classes the first time. Like Wilcox’s son, he walked away. May recommends a location that specializes in registering only veterans. “It will give veterans who are getting out of the military a place to get familiar with a school environment at a small level before getting into a larger school and help them adjust to the civilian life much easier,” he said.
Hunt acknowledges the veterans he counsels experience “a variety of symptoms related to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, relational difficulties and the stress of transitioning from military to civilian and becoming a student in a very foreign academic environment.”
Feeling connected is important, according to Hunt. “In the military, we experience connectedness as in no other environment,” he said. “Now, whether I’m talking to a retired flag officer or a four-year enlistee, we are all looking for something to belong to. A place where we are ‘in.’ Where we belong.” He said the challenges one faces in the military, such as danger, differing cultures and loss, create “an inseparable bond that cannot be duplicated anywhere. Civilians cannot fathom this type of loyalty and cohesion. I still miss that.”
Financial issues and family needs also are major concerns for military-connected students. Trinity River Campus student Fredy Torres, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, faced the challenge of balancing a full-time schedule with a full-time job and financial concerns. “Financial aid and professors who understand work/life balance have proven helpful,” he said.
TCC is working to address each of the issues that affect military-connected students and their families. “TCC is ensuring a successful transition into college with resources and staff members specifically dedicated to assisting our military-connected students,” said Ryan Kelly, program coordinator for the Veterans Learning Community at the Northwest Campus. Resources available include SVA chapters on campuses; VetSuccess counselors, Department of Veterans Affairs employees who assist with VA educational benefits; veterans specialists, who certify educational benefits; veterans counselors; veterans tutors and academic programs, such as a grant from Wal-Mart/Syracuse Institute of Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) that provided manufacturing/ industry certifications for high-demand jobs.
Hunt believes TCC leadership has placed “highly skilled and experienced functional experts on the job and has empowered them to accomplish the mission of military-connected student success and retention.” He strongly recommends that every faculty and staff member attend Green Zone training, geared toward making TCC a more veteran-friendly college. The training provides information and resources related to issues military-connected students face. Attendees become a resource, not only for military-connected students but also to others on how to meet the needs of those students.
Walker believes Green Zone training has the potential to have an enormous impact at TCC. He is working with TCC Human Resources to make it a professional training opportunity.
Efforts in meeting these students’ needs seems to be working. Torres heartily recommends TCC to military-connected individuals considering college. “To all vets struggling with school, keep working hard. There are resources on campus that you may use and are at your disposal,” he said. “I finished last semester with a 4.0 GPA.” He is now attending Texas Christian University and majoring in education.
Torres serves at the Veteran Success Center at the Trinity River Campus and encourages military-connected students to stop by.
Keep your heads up. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We were leaders in the military, now it’s time to be leaders in our communities. An education will facilitate that, especially since we have already paid for it.