Over three years ago more than 3,000 veterans traded their “ruc sacs” for backpacks at Mesa Community College (MCC), but the transition was not easy. The term the military uses to describe this divorce is “separation”. It is when a veteran switches from constant regimented structure to civilian life. While in the military service, members are forced to interact with one another. Everything is organized, and most military units hold a morning formation where attendance is taken, and continues through physical training, and soldiers eating together. The United States Army often directs its soldiers to travel as “Battle Buddies,” in no less than pairs. Teamwork is everything. Compared to college life, where you’re on your own.
“It took me three to four years to feel like I fit back into society,” says Matt Trujillo a student at MCC.
The Iraqi combat veteran is now majoring in Exercise Science. He says his start in college was not easy. When Trujillo completed his service, he spent a year of his life in the small town of Dodge City, Kansas. “I just needed a break, and to find out what I wanted to do with my life,” Trujillo added. Corey Rodriguez a veteran from Virginia Beach attends The University of Phoenix (UoP), “It has taken me a few years, but I don’t know if I’ll ever completely feel like I fit in,” says Rodriguez.
“I always have to make sure I face the exit when I go out to eat, anxiety in large classrooms, that sort of thing,” he adds.
Alison Light Hall is president of HAND2HAND CONTACT, a training and consulting company that helps civilian organizations better understand, work with, and care for our veterans. The former Army Captain wrote an article titled “Ten Things You Should Learn about Today’s Student Veteran”. It was published in the National Educational Society—a public education advocacy group. In her article, Lighthall explains how veterans may feel alienated while attending colleges, because their behavior in class may be misunderstood. “During class, they may have difficulty sitting still or staying focused, and they may need to leave the room to compose themselves,” Lighthall writes.
“After class, still struggling to process the taught information and skills, they may be silent or stoic when they need to be reaching out for guidance and support. Returning veterans may hope college will ease their discomfort. But new challenges await… A supportive and informed faculty is the key to their success,” added Lighthall. The Military Times, an Armed Forces publication, reports there are 1.4 million people currently serving in the Armed Forces. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) budget request plan for 2017 anticipates the separation of over 200,000 active duty personnel by the end of the year. Colleges in turn prepare for the possibility of veterans enrolling in their schools.
This has promoted many colleges and universities to sign onto federal and state policies for educational institutions servicing service members, veterans, and their families. In 2011 the Arizona Senate passed the Arizona Veteran Supportive Campus Certification Guidelines. It calls for educational institutions to implement initiatives to ensure veterans succeed in school. Amongst those are creating a resource center where veterans can find help with classes, as well as having support programs where soldiers can talk and engage with other student veterans. In addition, colleges are to create classes for faculty and learn and understand military and veteran culture, which includes delving into topics such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries.
MCC has implemented similar initiatives. Bill Clites is the Director of Veteran Services on campus. “It’s a worthwhile program. I think it causes schools to focus on things they might not normally focus on,” says Clites. Since the summer of 2016 the MCC Veterans Services Department has raised $25,000 in donations to support veterans in need. “Today I had a veteran come in and I’m working with him to get housing.” Student Trujillo says he has benefitted from the programs MCC has offered him. He attends classes part-time as he is working full time as a fitness instructor. “I thoroughly look through the catalog and website before enrolling at MCC. I like that MCC is willing to support our veterans.” After earning his Bachelor’s, Trujillo wants to own his own fitness facility.