Vet group teams up
Thasha Waringuez, member of the Alaskan National Guard, collaborates on a group project with veterans Joaquin Barela and Kenneth Ortega and veteran family member, Cody Artis.  

Transitioning from a military to campus landscape presents a new sort of battlefield for a soldier. A student veteran faces very different challenges than the traditional incoming student. Precise data on how well they do in college is not available, but studies indicate that large numbers are not making it to graduation. At the University of New Mexico, people and organizations are dedicated to turning the numbers around.

Many student veterans have a tough time adjusting to campus life. They've lost a big part of their identity, purpose, structure and worse, their band of brothers and sisters. Add to that an unfamiliar social system that bears no resemblance to the military, has no clear chain of command and is filled with many students and faculty who will never fully grasp their experiences, and a sense of alienation results.

Uncommon ground
Gabriel, who prefers only his first name be used, was in the Marine Corps Special Operations Command from 2007-2011. Due to the nature of his job and the ongoing work of the unit, no further details are permissible.

“In the beginning, I felt the way a foreigner might feel coming from a different country,” Gabriel said. “Campus culture is so lax it was a bit disconcerting at first. Students, who should be my peers, have different mannerisms, speech, dress. I’ve been at UNM for three years and I still don’t feel like we share much common ground.”

“Service members are typically skilled, disciplined, structured individuals who performed tasks under high stress, and they’re coming into an environment of younger students who have little broad world knowledge and experience yet,” said Stephanie McIver, clinical psychologist and director of Counseling Services at Student Health and Counseling (SHAC). 

"Incoming student veterans need role modeling and guidance. They need to be reassured that college and getting a degree is achievable, it just requires a different skill set and mental map."

~ Stephanie McIver, clinical psychologist and director of SHAC's counseling services

Connecting student veterans
Connecting new student veterans to those who have successfully navigated UNM a semester or more can be an effective way to ease the isolation. “Incoming student veterans need role modeling and guidance,” McIver said. “They need to be reassured that college and getting a degree is achievable, it just requires a different skill set and mental map. From a shared sense of alienation, they bond together, and that bonding mitigates their alienation.”

UNM organizations are prepared to help veterans adjust to life on campus. The Accessibility Resource Center provides a range of services to disabled vets. Student Veterans of UNM (SVUNM) focuses on assisting veterans in socially integrating with the student body, while the “Veterans Retreat,” coordinated by Dr. Peg Spencer at SHAC, provides a more structured framework for veterans to shift from the hardships of military and deployed life to one of academia.

The UNM Veterans Resource Center (VRC) is run by veterans, National Guard members and military family dedicated to helping incoming veterans overcome challenges to accomplish their academic mission. They recently appointed a new transitions coordinator, (an AmeriCorps volunteer) focused on helping veterans and their families with transitional support and community engagement.

Earlier this year, the VRC launched the Vet-2-Vet Peer Mentoring Program designed to address transitional challenges by bringing the tradition of mentorship in the military to UNM student veterans. In November, the VRC will implement the Green Zone Training Program designed to prepare faculty and staff to better understand the experiences of our student veterans at UNM.

Federal education benefits and challenges
Scheduling is a common issue student vets face. They struggle to get the classes they need due to the strict requirements of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, yet they must attain their degree within eight semesters, 36 months total. Every class must fulfill a degree requirement: no exceptions.

Many veterans want to ease into academia by taking 12 credit semesters. But this practice will prevent them from graduating in eight semesters and exhausts their education benefits. Veterans often don’t know all the steps needed to receive various benefits they are entitled to, or find the process too tangled to undertake.

With more than 1,200 student veterans on UNM main campus alone, accessing federal education benefits as military veterans or active-duty military members, more than any higher education institution in New Mexico, VRC is working on increasing awareness of all available benefits and resources offered by UNM and the surrounding community.

Adjusting to the first year
The VRC created the Veterans Transition Resiliency Leadership Course to help veterans achieve academic and career success as they transition. The course assists them in becoming more familiar with academic practices and university resources. The course also addresses social problems veterans face and other mental health topics, offered by instructors who are both veterans and mental health professionals.

“If student veterans adjust to the first year and campus culture, they perform better than the general student population,” McIver said. “Because they are disciplined and respectful of time, the structure makes them terrific students. The challenge is that coming from a culture where they’ve been taught to adapt and overcome, many veterans are reluctant to seek help.”

When asked what advice he would give to a veteran new to campus, Gabriel said, “Don’t hide in your shell or stay in your comfort zone. Be more interactive with veteran and non-veteran students alike. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. There are a lot of knowledgeable and caring people on campus ready, willing and able to be of service.”