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Fitting in: Student vets can bridge generation gap

Nov. 23, 2012 - 03:20PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 23, 2012 - 03:20PM  |  
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At 30, Janie "J.C." Feduccia isn't much older than her fellow classmates at Mississippi State University.

But the former Army National Guard private first class often feels worlds apart from the younger students around her.

For instance, don't get her started on the misuse of smartphones in the classroom.

"Young teenagers right out of high school don't want to concentrate on the class. They want to play on their phones," she laments. "I have a smartphone, but you don't see me taking it out in class."

For the seven-year Guard veteran, who spent a year in Iraq before leaving the service in 2006, it's more than a simple annoyance. It seriously impedes her concentration.

Having been in the military, "I'm very observant. I am aware of what is going on around me," she said.

Ignoring distractions in combat can mean injury or death, but the hypervigilance that Feduccia honed in a war zone now is proving detrimental to her college education.

She's not alone.

"Nontraditional" students like her typically defined as those who have a few-years gap between high school and college can feel out of place on campus. With age come maturity and life responsibilities, such as families and work, not often shared with many of their counterparts.

And as a subpopulation of nontraditional students, veterans and active-duty troops face other challenges. Those who served in combat "may experience social and cognitive dissonance as they transition and assimilate to the civilian college environment," according to the 2009 American Council on Education report, "From Soldier to Student: Easing the Transition of Service Members on Campus."

Other challenges may include mental health issues and physical injuries, said Bruce Holzschuh, coordinator of veterans and military student services at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn.

The Veterans Affairs Department diagnosed Feduccia with posttraumatic stress disorder in 2007, for which she's been in counseling.

"It's a hard hurdle to jump," she admits.

In 2007-08, nearly 85 percent of military undergraduates were nontraditional students ages 24 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Further, a study released in 2008 by the Rand Corp. think tank estimates that nearly 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have symptoms of PTSD or depression. Another 19 percent reported that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed.

Fortunately, with proper planning and wise use of available tools and resources, veteran and military students not only can succeed at school they can enjoy it, too.

Get ready

First, make sure you're mentally ready to go to school, advises Mississippi State student Morris McDonald, a 49-year-old retired Army sergeant first class who left uniform in 2001 but didn't start school full-time until 2004.

Part of that delay was waiting for his Chapter 31 Vocational & Rehabilitation benefits to begin. But McDonald, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, acute depression and obsessivecompulsive disorder along with ailments and chemical sensitivities he believes are related to service in operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, said he also knew he wasn't ready for college.

"I would have failed," he said. "I began with getting healed first.

You have to do it from that beginning step. Find out where the holes are in your armor."

With mental health issues such as PTSD, Holzschuh says, students "need to address what those issues are and be in counseling certainly before they are in school and quite possibly while they are in school. Often, we find that when a person is having trouble in school, it is not a learning problem, it is something out of sync in their lives. We have to address those [issues] before you can begin to think about doing better in the classroom." Often, he said, this requires some honest self-assessment. "They have to recognize that in themselves. They are not going to have someone to always tell them they have a problem."

Find support

Once you're ready for school, make sure you find one with a good veterans support network.

"Veteran and military student services are critically important having someone who, at minimum, understands the benefit programs," Holzschuh said.

That's not as simple as it sounds.

"The quality of services for veterans varies greatly from virtually nonexistent to extremely good," he said. "If you are getting frustrated with processes and paperwork and benefits and late payments, it's going to distract from what you are trying to do academically."

Good veteran support is something both Feduccia and McDonald say they're grateful to have found at Mississippi State's G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery Center for America's Veterans.

"They create an environment here that is welcoming to military students," McDonald said. "There is a sense that ‘we know from whence you come, and you are among friends and family.' " That relieves a lot of the anxiety of going to school be it from challenging coursework, difficult professors or clashes with classmates.

It also helps to have assistance with administrative tasks such as registering for classes and filling out VA paperwork.

"It's like coming back to the garrison and knowing you are safe," McDonald said.

Be realistic

When signing up for classes, avoid the temptation to do too much, too soon.

"There is a bit of frustration with some veterans coming back, feeling they are behind everyone," Holzschuh said. "Their buddies have graduated and gone on with their lives, and they feel they have catching up to do."

Some students try to take too many courses or try to skip the foundation courses that will lay the groundwork for academic success.

"We tell them not to overload themselves," said Ronnie White, assistant director of Mississippi State's veterans center. "We're not concerned with how long it takes you to graduate. You need to reacclimate yourself to the classroom. Go at a pace that is conducive to you being successful."

Be confident

As for the intimidation factor that often comes with returning to the classroom after many years away, Holzschuh urges veterans and active-duty students to put aside their apprehensions and be confident about what they bring to the table.

A former Navy Seabee who started college at age 38, Holzschuh said he quickly realized when he started taking classes that everyone is good at something. "In some courses where I could draw from life and work experience and training, I felt I had a real advantage over the younger students who had not ‘been there, done that' yet," he said. "The more technical courses math courses and that type of thing they had just had it the year before in high school, but I hadn't had it for 20 years."

But overall, "I felt my advantages far outweighed the disadvantages."

Be flexible

Finally, realize that college life and military life are very different. To that end, learn to go with the flow and expect the unexpected, Holzschuh said.

Be aware: You will have to accept some things you don't agree with. You will have to interact with people and professors you may not necessarily like.

When service members were in the military,"they encountered a lot of different people [and situations]," Holzschuh said."Draw on those circumstances for coping with a variety of people. Accept that differences aren't always negative or positive they are just different."

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