Student veterans attempt to unite

Welcome to college. It’s a scramble to situate yourself, figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and find where you belong. Many find it to be a highly stressful time. For military veterans, it’s even worse.

Returning to civilian life and attempting to establish oneself in the hectic and demanding college life is challenging enough, but couple that with the fact that many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, and acute lack of focus. These mental roadblocks make an ordinary task, like getting to class on time, a troubling ordeal.

The trials that every veteran has gone through, the rigors and high levels of stress common to all who have faced combat, do not translate well to degree-seeking individuals. Roadside bombs and M-16s don’t mix easily with writing five page papers. College is chaotic and demanding in its own right, but it’s a completely different form of intensity than that found in active military duty. Many college-bound veterans simply become lost in the quagmire.

One example is the fact that many veterans have been known to enroll in 21 or more college credits. Considering that a 12 credits load is considered full-time and the credit cap is supposed to be set at 19, this is quite excessive. These veterans may pile on the workload because they have no other clear focus point to follow, so they cling to the structure of their past military lives. Textbooks and lectures become the trade-in for operation briefings and surgical strikes.

Without some sort of assistance program to alleviate such burdens and transition them in the right direction, today’s competitive college environment can leave veterans destined to fail.

These veterans aren’t necessarily looking for someone to show them where to go every step of the way; more than anything, they just want someone who can understand what they are dealing with. Their situation is complicated enough to begin with, and any assistance would be helpful.

Having someone who knows of the complications and troubling emotions being dealt with on a daily basis is an understandable benefit for veterans on campus. Veterans find it a relief to have a person available to engage in conversation with who understands where they’re coming from and exactly what confusions they face. This is what college-attending veterans are almost always seeking, and rarely ever find.

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But that’s not to say colleges aren’t trying to help. The Department of Veterans Affairs was established with the idea of providing such assistance, specifically helping veterans through the complicated enrollment process and subsequent class navigation, as well as handling the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other benefits. But according to the groups of college-attending veterans left floundering in a pool of mass confusion and even more questions, it’s not working quite as effectively as it needs to be.

Even more problematic are UAA’s Financial Aid, Dispersing, and Accounting departments, which function essentially as the be-all-end-all for veterans hoping to get through the college system. Veterans report a constant scurry back and forth between different enrollment and credit approval offices, forever producing different military forms and verification documents.

With all this weighing down on their shoulders, it’s clear to see why veterans are feeling lost and misrepresented on campus.

Tammy Cartwright would like this to change.

Cartwright has firsthand experience with this lost-in-translation feeling. A combat veteran who served under Operation Iraqi Freedom for 14 months starting in 2005, Tammy waded through a seemingly unending stream of paperwork, phone calls, and referrals upon enrolling at UAA, just to receive her veteran benefits.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “You want to get mad at the advisors, at the VA, at the school. You have limited resources to begin with, and the resources here just aren’t adequate at all.”

Not to mention the fact that many veterans are trying to attend to personal issues as well, battling inner demons and warding off deep-seated anxieties and UAA offers no staffed military advisors on campus. There are certified officials who can assist with credits and course hours, but as far as veteran counseling goes, the school is lacking compared to other colleges around the nation.

This leaves a gaping hole in the most important factors of college success for military veterans: their mental and psychological well being.

“You’re dealing with an extremely emotional situation,” said Cartwright. “You come home and you don’t know your families anymore, and your families don’t know you. You’re left feeling like an outcast in the place you once called home.”

According to Cartwright, veterans work extremely hard to act normal around the rest of society—they have too much pride and dignity to let others know of troubles they are facing—but there is no way to disguise that thousand yard stare.

“Throw that into the college mix, and you’re dealing with academic suicide,” Cartwright said.

And indeed, many college veterans do find themselves bombing out and facing extremely high debts, even with their military benefits. According to Greg Kaplan, a D.C. representative and a member of Congress, within the first year of college nearly 50 percent of veterans will be financially disqualified, due to excessive class enrollment and misguidance, among other factors.

“These overpayments just keep on snowballing,” Kaplan said. “They’re set up to fail.”

In an effort to combat the hardships facing these student veterans, Cartwright, along with several other dedicated veterans, have established Veterans of UAA. This group is dedicated to reaching out to veterans and providing a helping hand. This ranges from just offering a place for veterans to come when they want to talk, to actually assisting them in figuring out their GI Bill and class navigation discrepancies. And the group isn’t restricted to veterans—anyone can join.

While this is a relatively new group and membership, especially among veterans, is low, Cartwright is confident in the eventual success of Veterans of UAA.

“Obviously it’s going to be difficult to reach out to veterans to start out—we are a solitary bunch by nature—but eventually I believe we can establish a solid foundation where veterans can find connection and feel represented on campus,” Cartwright said.

“More than anything, that’s what is needed.”