Military Moment: Unique Challenges for Veterans in Higher Education


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.

Completing a college degree is a big decision for any student, but as a veteran or service member, your situation is unique. You face issues, decisions, concerns and sometimes challenges that other students may not. As a veteran, I understand the decisions, tensions and unique circumstances you face as you plan to complete your degree. 

It’s important to consider unique circumstances and challenges you may face as you navigate the transition from service member to student. Today I’ll focus on five potential challenges and offer a few suggestions to help you achieve success no matter what degree you decide to pursue!  

Challenge 1: You’re in a different stage of life than other students. 

If you ask any veteran returning to college, particularly those earning undergraduate degrees, what it’s like, you’ll most certainly hear something about being the oldest student in the room. Personally, the biggest challenge I experienced when transitioning from active duty Army to my small private Christian college was trying to fit in with a younger—and often less experienced—group. 

While these sorts of interactions can be comical, they often lead to productive conversations. As someone who may have a little more life experience or be able to articulate a different point of view, you have a lot to offer in classroom discussions and campus conversations. Don’t assume, just because you may be older or have a different background, that your classmates won’t accept you or can’t benefit from what you have to say. 

At the same time, make sure to seek out fellow veterans, service members and campus officials such as the veteran service coordinator or military liaison. With help from others who have walked in your shoes, you can find a way to grow and become the person you want to be. By speaking into the lives of other students and offering a unique perspective, you’ll be able to help others grow, too!  

Challenge 2: People will make assumptions about you because you’re a veteran.

It’s easy for those who haven’t been in the military to make assumptions about what military life is like as well as what you’ve experienced or what you think, feel or believe. Sometimes, those assumptions are widely off-base. While members of the campus community may sometimes draw faulty conclusions about what you need or want from your college experience, more often than not, they’re genuinely trying to figure out how to help you succeed.

One of the most important teaching tools of a university setting is the ability to interact with people who come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Yes, your classmates need to hear your point of view but don’t forget that they have something to offer you, too! Learning to engage with others in conversation, to share ideas, clear up any misconceptions and clearly outline what you think or believe is a valuable exercise that prepares you for the workforce and civilian life in general. Trevecca can be a safe place to develop and practice those skills. 

Challenge 3: You’re worried you won’t be able to connect with non-veterans.

As a service member or veteran, you’ve been taught to put your own needs and emotions aside and put the needs of the unit first. That mentality is deeply ingrained in your way of life, and you can’t simply push it aside. Because of your experiences and training, you may find that you’re no longer comfortable asking for help. 

When talking with students who have transitioned from the military, I often emphasize that nonveterans really can help you. They may not share your specific experience, but that doesn’t mean they won’t understand what you’re going through. Seek to give people a chance. Learning to communicate what you’ve learned and experienced in the military is perhaps the most important step in a successful transition. Don’t expect that one day you will wake up and feel like talking about your service, or that you’ll instantaneously learn how to talk like a civilian again. These things take time. Make sure to give yourself some grace during the process.  

Challenge 4: People won’t know how to help you. 

What I’ve found is that most people—whether on a college campus or in the community—want to help veterans. They are genuinely thankful for your sacrifice and service. Some people even feel guilty because they don’t know what to do to better help or support veterans. 

Getting to know you personally can help others see that listening and being available are often some of the best ways to help you. Deeply invest in relationships with other veterans or service members, but also seek to get to know others outside of that circle. Not only will that help you learn and grow, but it will also help to enrich the campus community and teach others how to truly help veterans. 

Challenge 5: You’re not sure what you want to do after leaving the military. 

Some veterans leave the military knowing exactly what they want to do. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re considering a variety of opportunities that all seem appealing. If that’s you, take a deep breath. Focus on the things you know to be true: I am good at ___________ or I think I’d really enjoy a career in ___________ . Take your time adjusting to your new environment and know that there’s hope. By and large, the challenges we face bring growth.

While your transition may feel frightening at times, it’s important to know you’re not alone. Pursuing a degree involves transition for all students, whether traditional freshmen or adults returning to complete a degree or earn a master’s degree. At Trevecca, we’ve been helping adult students return to college and finish their degrees for more than 40 years. We understand many of the unique challenges students returning to college later in life face and are well prepared to help you! 



Want to know more?

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.