One of my colleagues, Jared Lyon, uses the term “Civilian Incubator” to describe college as a transition strategy for service members and veterans as they re-enter the civilian world from their military service. Civilian accelerator might be even more appropriate.
It’s interesting to think we need such re-acclimation, because for many veterans we never left the civilian world. We lived off base, shopped at regular malls, sent our kids to local schools, and other things that everyone around us did. At the same time, many of us worked in an environment that was sometimes much different than our civilian peers who never served, including being deployed, living with our units, and of course, combat. We also held security clearances, couldn’t talk about our work, and shared less about our jobs with our families and friends than our peers shared with their families and friends. Our education and career paths were largely determined for us, as were our benefits, where we moved, and so on.
College on the other hand is all about choice. Everything from choosing what schools to apply to, what majors to study, what class schedule to enroll in, what student activities to participate in, to where to live, what part time jobs to take, and more. Sometimes these are the first times we need to make informed decisions on our own, without guidance or people to advise us. We’re around civilians who have never served on a daily basis. Our faculty are not military members as were our instructors and faculty while we served. Things aredifferent. Not bad, not good necessarily, but different. (For me they were good!)
When I went to college and then later law school after service I had an interesting experience with rejoining the civilian world. Mere months after I left the military I enrolled in and began attending Iowa State University. I moved into the adult student/graduate student dorms, because I was an adult student aged 25. The first person I met was my roommate, also a veteran. Of course that too was different – he was a veteran of the Ukrainian military. Quite a change from the Cold War in which I had served, rather than an “adversary”, he was now my roommate. We had a lot in common in having served our countries in our respective militaries, though we never really got to know each other well. (I’ll never forget the first time my alarm went off and he came out of bed standing at attention!)
Over the next few weeks I met other veterans in the dormitory. My next roommate was a Navy veteran. Good friends were Army veterans, serving National Guard members, a spouse of a Navy service member who was at sea, a Royal Norwegian Air Force veteran. Outside of the dormitory, in the Adult Students on Campus and Adult Student Scholarship Fund groups I joined, there were Army and Air Force veterans, some from the then current era of service, some dating back to Vietnam.
I had a cadre of fellow veterans, of international students who were veterans also, and of serving Guard members. I felt at home. Unlike some stories I read now, I was not having difficulty transitioning into higher education – I was in love with higher education! I had the opportunity to learn, to interact with new ideas, to be exposed to rigorous academics. But I was also comforted by the familiar around me, and we gave each other advice, counsel, and, even, focus. We raised money for other veterans and adult students.
Then something interesting started to happen. My friends and colleagues introduced me to their friends. I met my own friends. People who weren’t veterans. People who were amazingly diverse, both in their backgrounds, but also in their experiences. As I noted, even as an undergrad, I was in a graduate student and adult student dormitory. One person I met was a 75-year-old woman pursuing her degree “because it’s a lot cheaper than a nursing home and it keeps me young!” I learned to relate my military experiences to their life experiences. I heard alternative perspectives from around the world. From people pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees after varied business and industry roles, not at all affiliated with military service. I met undergrad and graduate students pursuing research in subjects I knew nothing about. My intellectual curiosity was sparked and my appetite for learning fed!
I noticed something else – the veterans who had gotten to know each other spread out. They bridged the “civilian-military” divide by engaging and interacting with others with no experience of military service. We learned from each other, expanded our circles, opened our minds and those of our peers who had never served, rejected our pre-conceived notions of others and helped others do the same. We built on the characteristics and traits we had garnered from military service and went on to graduate. We pursued professional schools, graduate school, civilian careers, and even ongoing military service. We built families. Became leaders in our communities. Built businesses. Taught in local schools. We became civilians during our education and after our service. And even more important, we transitioned our brothers and sisters from service to civilian at the same time. We didn’t have SVA at that time. Now we do, and SVA does the same thing! That’s the power of Student Veterans of America. That’s the power of our chapters. That’s the power of peers. That’s why I and others at SVA do what we do.