Approximately 250,000 veterans transition out of the military annually, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VA). With that transition, many veterans face challenges adjusting to civilian life. A Pew Research Center study published in 2019 found that close to 50 percent of post-9/11 veterans say readjusting to civilian life was difficult.
According to the VA’s website, challenges facing veterans transitioning back to civilian life include interpersonal relations with those unfamiliar with the nuances of military service, reconnecting with family and joining or creating a community. Veterans may face work issues as well, including finding a civilian job, returning to a job held before military service or adjustment to a different approach and pace of work. Additionally, veterans may be challenged by lack of daily structure and scarcity of basic necessities such as clothing, food and housing.
TCC student veterans often face similar challenges. “Being a Marine changes who you are and your outlook on life,” said Justin Dearick, who is studying to become a paramedic with the ultimate goal of serving as a flight paramedic. He served in the military for five years. At 24 years old, he found himself married with a child and “absolutely no idea of how to run a marriage, life or job. It is a complete cultural shock. Absolutely the hardest part about joining the Marine Corps was transitioning out and back into the world as a civilian.”
TCC alumnus Jason Roberts served in the U.S. Army for 11 years. He plans to be a physician and currently is waiting for acceptance into medical school. Challenges he faced as he transitioned into civilian life included post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which started during his service, and loneliness after leaving the military. “During my service, I was constantly surrounded by my brothers and people willing to lay down their lives for me,” he said. “Afterward, during college, I was much older than the average student. I was married and had three children, so fitting in and finding friends was nearly impossible.”
After serving in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, Eli Valdivia planned to work a civilian job and attend school. However, he suffered a major accident while still in the military. He was faced with “the uncertainty of not knowing if I was going to be medically and physically fit to accomplish my goal to attend school and obtain a full-time job. At the last minute, I was told that I couldn’t perform the only job I knew since joining the military in 2000,” he said. His counselors encouraged him to choose a different path. “I was scared to learn something new and having zero experience.” He currently is pursuing an associate degree in Computer Science.
Although exact numbers are hard to determine due to missing data on enrollment applications and changes in reporting, the most recent statistics indicate TCC had 1,373 student veterans enrolled as of Spring 2022. TCC Northwest veterans counselor Bill Alexander believes the number could be higher. Given the number of student veterans attending TCC, how does the College assist them with issues relating to transition to civilian life including enrollment, education benefits, relationships, careers and mental health?
In 2013, TCC sought to meet the needs of veterans leaving the service and using their educational benefits through the establishment of Veterans Resource Centers at each campus. The first center, called VetSuccess, was located at TCC South. This location was chosen, in part, due to the number of student veterans attending there and the proximity to the local Veterans Administration office, the VA Medical and Outpatient clinics and the Texas Veterans Commission.
Eventually, Veterans Resource Centers opened on each campus. Services and resources provided by the centers “create solutions for educational success by eliminating barriers and transforming veteran and military-connected (dependents) students’ lives,” according to Alexander. “Veteran and military-connected students receive enrollment assistance, counseling and information on educational and healthcare benefits, which help ease the transition and enhance their overall educational experience.”
Veterans counselors understand the stressors veterans face. Several counselors are either veterans themselves or military-connected through a family member. “I struggled with transitioning out of the military culture and into the civilian mindset,” said Angel Ayala, who served for four years in the U.S. Air Force and now is a veterans counselor at TCC Trinity River. Ayala faced PTSD following trauma incurred during his service. He sought both personal and group counseling, which has enabled him to effectively manage his mental health challenges.
Those very challenges led Ayala to pursue his master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. “I chose this career path because I wanted to learn more about my mental health issues and to be able to help people who struggle with issues just as I did.”
Bill Alexander served in the U.S. Navy for nine years, deploying six times during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Challenges he faced in transitioning from military service to civilian life involved difficulty using his VA Education Benefits. At the time he attended TCC, there were no veteran services on the campuses. Veterans had to complete paperwork at the county Veterans Services office then bring it to the school.
What these counselors have experienced personally informs the services they currently provide veteran students. Initially, Alexander thought he would study mechanical engineering, but discovered his strategic and analytical thinking would serve well in psychology and chose to pursue that as his major. He credits his academic advisor with guiding his exploration of career paths. “Evidence suggests approximately 20 percent of veterans pursue coursework in a field similar to that in which they performed in the military,” he said. “Most will choose a different pathway for a career in civilian life.”
With his military background as a flight engineer, Alexander said he could have transitioned to a career as a professional pilot. “I decided to focus on the strengths I had in pursuing a career that would keep me home with my family. Viewing veterans from a strengths perspective rather than one of a deficit model will go a long way in both understanding and serving this unique population.”
Alexander says that Veterans Resource Centers staff are skilled in taking a holistic approach to assisting veteran students with educational objectives and vocational goals. Career Counseling and Career Services provide assistance with résumé building, mock interviews and military-friendly career fairs.
LaJeanne Williams, instructional associate in Career Services at TCC Trinity River, says military skills and qualities of veteran students are taken into consideration when assisting them with their résumés or mock interviews. “We help them to see how their skills and qualities are a benefit for certain jobs and how best to communicate them to their potential employer,” she said.
“Every combat veteran I’ve ever talked to is always searching to ‘matter again’ in some form or fashion,” said Dearick. “When I was a forklift mechanic, I was making GREAT money (with) low hours and benefits. It was the ‘perfect’ job, and I dreaded it every day and felt very meaningless, which ultimately drove me to pursue a career as a first responder. I chose this field because it is probably the closest I can get to doing what I was doing in the Marine Corps and definitely gives me that feeling of making a difference again.”
Like Dearick, Roberts also wants to make a difference with his career choice. “I would like it best to be a doctor that travels to different countries providing medical treatment to those that do not have access (to care),” he said.
“A lot of veterans (including myself) make the mistake of chasing the dollar and just trying to make the most money possible,” said Dearick. “For the first time in their life for a lot of them, they have the opportunity to think for themselves and steer their lives in a direction where they want it to go. (They need to be) sure they are in the driver’s seat.”
Dearick’s and Roberts’ desire to make a difference with their careers seems to be a common thread with veterans. In 2021, The Ambitious VET Network published a white paper on why 65 percent of post-9/11 veterans leave their first post-military job within 24 months of starting. One of the reasons why? Work that is not meaningful.
Alexander says veterans can experience a big adjustment in a post-military job. “I like to communicate that in the military, we lived life, whereas in the civilian world, we do life,” he said. “Military personnel eat, sleep, work, deploy and commune with each other both inside and outside of ‘work.’” Families commune together and enjoy the camaraderie.
“Civilian life is punching the clock until the day is done, then we all go home to our own environments until the next day. Civilian life is routine—military life is purposeful.”
Chris Hoffmann, founder and CEO of The Ambitious VET Network, said their research reflected “education and training gaps in providing ambitious veterans with the meaningful career, emotional intelligence and purpose they are seeking to have.” He also recommends that educational institutions “provide more information and resources for veteran students to help them understand themselves more and create programs that empower them to create the needed support systems and network needed to find the fulfilling career they desire most.”
In addition to assistance with career and education choices and counseling services, the TCC Veterans Resource Centers offer veteran students the ability to connect and create a community that evokes a sense of belonging, according to Alexander.
Research suggests the single greatest factor in post-traumatic growth in veterans is camaraderie. The dynamics in the Veterans Resource Centers serve as an opportunity for veterans to connect with each other and feel a sense of belonging. We are veterans serving veterans, and it makes a difference.
Veterans Counselor, TCC Northwest
Valdivia agrees. “The Veterans Resource Center is my home away from home. I feel welcomed and that I belong here. This is what I want to experience, and TCC is going beyond my expectations,” he said. “Dr. Alexander is a great mentor and really cares about your future.”
Dearick feels the same. “I would not have made it into class or be able to continue without the Veterans Resource Center. It is the most valuable tool I have. The counselor is irreplaceable.”
For Roberts, his time at TCC was “like a dream come true.” He credits veterans counselor Valerie Groll with leading him in the right direction. Roberts found his place in leadership, serving as vice president for the Student Government Association and president of the Student Veterans of America chapter at his campus. He was awarded the Student Veteran of the Year. He met with TCC South’s president and vice presidents regularly and had the opportunity to meet with a state representative and the mayor of Fort Worth to request future funding for TCC. Additionally, he volunteered at several shelters and food banks and participated in building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Alexander says his time as a student at TCC was a time of perpetual growth. “TCC faculty/staff contributed greatly to my overall holistic growth and development, providing me opportunities in mentorship, vocational guidance, educational support and cheering me along the way,” he said. “I like to think we continue to do this today.”
Veteran students and counselors have advice for veterans considering furthering their education at TCC. “Embrace your past and figure out how to use it in a positive, productive way,” said Dearick. “Don’t be ashamed to find someone to talk to here at the school if you’re struggling. All it takes is for you to ask for help, and I promise you someone will be there.”
Valdivia encourages veterans to make an appointment with a counselor at TCC. “It is never too late to start school. Come and give yourself a chance.”
It was at TCC that I realized I could succeed. The instructors gave me encouragement and support. I went from doubting myself to feeling confident in what I could achieve. It is a great place to start and get an idea of what college life is like.
Veterans Counselor, TCC Trinity River
Roberts considers TCC “an excellent choice for any veteran deciding to start or return to school.” He suggests going to meet every professor during office hours, before the semester begins. “Most of all, stay proactive in your education, find others and tutor them,” he said. “You will be surprised how much better you understand a subject when you spend time teaching it and trying to understand it from another’s perspective.”
Echoing the advice about meeting with professors, Alexander says, “I tell veterans it is important to connect with faculty/staff and allow us to help you navigate this environment.” He also recommends that veterans become engaged and become leaders just as they were in the military. “We need them, and TCC is better for it.”
Finally, Alexander wants veterans to know this: “You belong here! Education is a worthy pursuit for so many reasons, and veterans bring with them all the ingredients for becoming successful.”