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Military Connected Students

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Successfully Transitioning to an Academic Setting

Transitioning from a military environment to a college campus has a lot of potential for excitement, sucess, challenges, and stress. You are switching more than a rucksack to a backpack and from boots to books. There are several components to the transition that are subtle and complex. If you don't have the resources and support you need, there is increased risk of being disatisfied with your experience and dropping out.

Possible challenges associated with the transition to an academic setting:

  • Developing a primary identity as a student or navigating dual identities as a student and service member.
  • Difficulty relating to and connecting with traditional college students. Age and maturity differences may lead to feeling disconnected from traditional college students. Typical student concerns may not have the same importance to military connected students. You may feel somewhat alienated at first, especially as conversations about the military or war come up in the classroom or on campus.
  • Finding importance and meaning in experiences and ideas outside of military life.
  • You may miss the solidarity you had before with other service members.
  • Negotiating the structural and procedural differences between the military and higher education bureaucracies (e.g., knowing the rules and mores of the campus, where to go to get things done, how to address professors and others in positions of authority).
  • Moving from simplicity to complexity. You'll be making much more of your own autonomous, personal daily decisions than before.
  • Developing a sense of safety, comfort, and routine on campus.
  • Boredom (e.g., transitioning from the adrenaline rush experienced in service)
  • Having difficulty returning to your previous roles (as parent, spouse, children of their parents). Family and relationship issues and conflicts may resurface.

Suggestions for a Successful Transition

  • Establish and maintain relationships with other students, faculty, and staff. Make intentional, active efforts to connect with others on campus. Getting involved with clubs, campus activities, and student organizations a part of the college experience. It also connects you with other students who have similar interests.
  • Work to find opportunities to talk about military experiences and transition challenges. Talk with students, faculty, and staff who seem supportive. The JMU community is very supportive, but they may not know if you want to talk about your experiences. In an attempt to be respectful and considerate, they may not initiate the conversation. Let them know if you are interested in talking about your experiences.
  • Work to reestablish relationships and renegotiate roles with family members. The deployment cycle creates a lot of changes within family roles, especially if they have taken on new responsibilities. Talk openly with your family about these challenges and work with them to make the transition smooth.
  • Understand that emotional control requires both holding in and expressing emotions. Showing emotions does not indicate weakness and is critical to sustaining meaningful personal relationships in civilian life.
  • Reestablish or find a meaning and purpose in life apart from military service. The clear meaning and purpose that characterize military experiences does not translate well to civilian life. Make an effort to identify important values and passions and consider how they might guide daily choices and commitments. Seek fulfillment through prayer, meditation, religious practice, exercise, volunteer work, community service, etc. 
  • Develop good academic habits. Start with a manageable course load and set reasonable goals. Go to class and take comprehensive notes to improve focus on course materials and lectures. Establish a daily schedule to maximize organization. Let your professors know if you are having difficulties as soon as you are aware of them.
  • Pay attention to physical well-being. Eat well-balanced meals, get plenty of rest, and build physical activity into daily life.
  • Seek balance in life. Devote time to physical, fun, social, spiritual, productive, and peaceful. Engage in a variety of meaningful activities.
  • Limit use of alcohol and illegal substances. Abuse of these substances increases the likelihood of depression, insomnia, relationship problems, academic difficulties, and legal troubles.
  • Appreciate a sense of humor in yourself and others. Humor relieves stress, produces body chemicals that improve mood, and helps us to gain a more balanced perspective. Do not postpone joy and laughter should they come your way.
  • Limit exposure to war-related news reports (e.g., news channels, newspapers, Web sites, etc.). While keeping informed of developments is important, the 24/7 media machine typically ignores stories of heroism, resilience, and sacrifice and instead focuses on the most horrific images and troubling accounts.
  • Prepare an answer to questions about your war experience. Not everyone you encounter will understand respectful ways to ask about your service or what is appropriate or inappropriate. Prepare a brief response for acquaintances and a lengthier answer for close family members and friends.
  • Connect with other veterans and service members. The friendship and support of other military connected individuals is critical to effectively transitioning to civilian life. They have an understanding of the experience and impact of being in the military as well as the additional challenges of being on a college campus. 
  • Grieve for and honor those who did not make it back. If you lost someone you served with, it is important to grieve and work through the reactions attached to that loss. Work to live a life worthy of the sacrifice made by fallen comrades.