by Nicholas Lanier
I can still remember my first day at school, as if it were yesterday.
There I was, a recently retired Army veteran at the ripe old age of 40, with a wife and four kids at home, going to back to college to complete my undergraduate degree.
Suddenly, it hit me: Nothing I was experiencing made any sense. Everything was total chaos. There was no order. People were walking in both directions on a sidewalk – even on the grass – simply wandering with no purpose, no regard for situational awareness.
There I was, at the start of my education, trying to figure out how to integrate back into civilian life. I was more than twice the age of most of my classmates. Not only did I have to succeed to care for my family and pay the bills: I also had to redefine myself.
In addition, I had to make friends with my new peers (the friends that I ended up making were not only much younger than me; they had no military experience. In fact, I was the only veteran most had ever met).
I often joke that my military experience is coded into my genetic makeup. Although there’s some truth to that, my military experience is only part of me. Not the whole me. Each of us has multiple identities, and mine include being male, a father, a husband, white, a U.S. citizen, and an enlisted combat veteran who served tours in Iraq and the Korean demilitarized zone.
I’m also a former high-school history teacher, an avid reader, and a college graduate.
That’s what this whole school thing is about: sharing your experiences with those around you, and expanding your boundaries.
I consider myself a work in progress, and I’m happy to share some of the lessons I learned, as I developed from a student veteran to a graduate.
Most of life will not be as orderly as your military experience. I can still recall waking up to the dulcet sounds of my drill sergeant banging on a trash can at 4:30 a.m. It wasn’t the most pleasant way to wake up, but it started my day and gave me a sense of order. The day started early, and everything you did served a larger purpose to the whole. When the day was completed to the given standard, you had achieved success.
At school, no one wakes you up. It’s up to you to get to class and do the work. No one will tell you how to cram all your schoolwork in, balance it with your job, figure out how to best use your GI Bill funds, and keep your kids and spouse happy at the same time.
Your classmates are dealing with changes, too. Some have never been away from home or experienced this level of freedom – and lack of structure. They’re missing their parents and friends. They’re younger, less experienced than you. Maybe even scared.
This experience is new for everyone. Your perspective is one of many on the campus. You have much to share, and much to learn.
Your experiences in the military will inform how you view things. So, start to embrace your new surroundings. Use your keen powers of observation and analysis to make sense of it all.
Don’t segregate yourself. When I went back to school, it was entirely too easy for me to simply ignore everyone except my fellow veterans. That lasted about a semester before I realized that, to truly enjoy myself, I had to be open to others.
I won’t claim that making friends was easy, but it did happen. It all started with a cup of coffee and a student who asked me a simple question that showed a willingness to connect on a personal, human level (although it’s not important what the question was, it happened to be, “What’s it like to go back to college at your age?”).
I began to realize that my academic voice had just as much weight as – if not more weight than – my military experience. It was this simple step that allowed me to go from feeling like an outsider to being a student really experiencing school life.
Be patient with your classmates. Remember that this is all a process. There will be times when you will be paying diligent attention to your professor, while others aren’t. This can be frustrating, but remember: What you put into the process determines what you get out of it. The qualities you acquired while serving – focus, discipline, persistence, and courage – will be the same ones that help you achieve academic success.
Finally comes perhaps the hardest part of the experience:
Remember that people are people. At the end of day, we are all human beings. There is an inherent beauty to the human experience in which people of all backgrounds engage with one another on a human level.
You may even find that you learn more from someone who’s not a veteran than from someone who is – because someone with an experience so different from yours may have more to teach you. Sometimes, simply by speaking to someone from a different background, you can actually learn more about yourself.
Meeting people and talking to them may prove easier than you thought. You may discover that, as you have certain experiences that inform you, so does everyone else.
These are some of the ways in which we student veterans can overcome some of the hurdles we face. Learn how to be yourself, and let your military experiences be a part of your story, not who you are.
Nick Lanier, assistant director of veteran recruitment and enrollment, is a combat veteran of the U.S Army who was deployed to the Korean DMZ and Iraq, retiring as a noncommissioned officer in 2012 after 13 years of military service. A former US history and social-studies teacher he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science, international relations and history, at Saint Leo University, graduating magna cum laude, in 2015.