This post is part of our Military Moments series, appearing every Friday in July. If you are a veteran or service member who is looking to transition into higher education, we recognize you have specific questions or concerns that other students might not. At Trevecca, we’re ready to guide you through your entire higher education journey, from application to graduation. Each week, Michael Norman, Trevecca’s veteran services coordinator, will prepare you to navigate the service transition.
When I began thinking about whether I wanted to reenlist in the Army or leave, I spent quite a bit of time researching the GI Bill, colleges, job openings and the qualifications needed for the types of jobs I was interested in. By the time I sat down in my out-processing GI Bill brief, I found there wasn’t a whole lot of new information they could give me.
When my termination leave began, I had already been accepted into college, preregistered for classes, had a job lined up and signed a lease for an apartment. Within a few weeks, I’d transitioned from soldier to “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m here.” My transition wasn't seamless—and I had a plan, even if I didn't think I'd done a great job preparing for it.
No matter how great your plan is, the transition from service to civilian will have a few challenges. Here are a few tips you might want to consider before you transition from service member to student.
- Make a plan.
If you are planning to transition out of the military and into college, have a plan. Don’t wait until you are signing your expiration term of service papers to start applying to colleges or signing up for your GI Bill benefits. This stuff takes time. If possible, start planning your transition at least a year in advance. Even if you are deployed, you can still submit college applications online—and most are free! Even if you’re going back to your hometown, don’t count on things being just like they were when you left. You will need time to adjust to this new chapter of your life, and one of the best ways to do this is to begin imagining and thinking through the process long before it begins. Doing so can help you mitigate any surprises or challenges.
- Expect the unexpected.
Making a plan is important, but so is understanding that every step of the process probably won’t unfold just as you expected. In his book, Separating from Service (2019), Eric Burleson talks about a common thread among members of the military. He says that transitioning veterans are often preoccupied with the notion of understanding “what to do” to transition better. Knowing what to do is a vital part of our military training and ingrained in our way of thinking. But as Burleson writes in Separating from Service, “knowing what to do immediately feels so deeply important to our survival that we lose focus on almost everything else.”
While the military teaches us the importance of “what to do,” it often doesn’t teach us “how to be.” Plan ahead but understand that it’s OK to sometimes not know exactly what to do. In these moments, make an effort to focus on how you’re doing, rather than what you’re supposed to be doing. Mental health is easily one of the most difficult challenges you will undertake during your transition. It is essential that you begin to understand your own emotions, needs and expectations.
- Build a support system.
Probably the best thing you can do as you transition from the military is find a group of peers and a mentor. Parents and longtime friends can be extremely helpful, but they may not understand the “new you” or the way your service has shaped and changed you. At times, friends and family members only see the person they once knew and not the person you are becoming. It can be helpful to find new guidance from a less biased point of view, such as a veteran support group, counselor or organization in your area. Learn more about the services and support provided to U.S. veterans here.
At Trevecca, it’s my job to help you strategize your transition. I’d be happy to talk with you about what my experience was like and help you figure out what your new life can look like. Even if you don’t end up attending Trevecca, I’d be thrilled to be a part of your transition.
Ready to take the next step?
At Trevecca, I am proud to serve my fellow veterans as the University’s veteran services coordinator. I’d love to sit down with you or any veteran and help bridge the gap between military and civilian life.