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5 Tips to Help Veterans Succeed in College

5 Tips to Help Veterans Succeed in College

Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by Andrew Porter, an Army veteran, a member of the Alpha Gamma Omega Chapter at Valencia College in Florida, and Phi Theta Kappa's 2016-2017 International President.


First off, let me say, thank you. We appreciate your sacrifice, your courage, and vigilance in all you have done and continue to do for our nation.

Service members of the United States Armed Forces are a diverse group coming from many different backgrounds and heading in different directions in life. Not every veteran utilizes the educational opportunities that come with military service by attending college. For those who do, use this as a resource for your success.

Returning to college offers many rewarding opportunities. As with any opportunity, it comes with some necessary challenges that, in the end, will be worth it. Veterans face many of the same challenges other students face, with some unique ones as well.

As an Army veteran, I had to make the transition from soldier to student. Along the way, I’ve found five steps that have helped me be successful, and I want to share them with you now.

Step 1: Know Your “Why”

Knowing what you want to do and why you want to do it is pivotal. Success in college (just like in the military) requires hard work — your effort, persistence, and willpower will be rigorously tested. In times like these, gain strength from your “why.”

Determining what you want to do in life and why you want to do it isn’t easy. Finding your answer requires introspection and honest answers to some tough questions about yourself. I’d start here:

What do I want out of life?
Why do I want that?
How do I do that?

The first two questions are going to be up to you to determine. I urge you to ask yourself the second question ad infinitum (just keep asking yourself “why”). The third question of “how” is where you should reach out for guidance.

Step 2: Consider Your Major

You know what you want to do and why you want to do it. Now, find a major that gives you the right knowledge, connections, and training required for you to excel. Seek guidance in this — often academic/career counselors can point you in the right direction.

I’m the type of person who loves to figure things out — I can easily pass hours thinking and planning within my own mind. But life isn’t a single-player game. So, when I’m solving problems, I seek out the help of a team. Your academic advisors will be a great asset to you.

Step 3: Utilize Your Resources

College has a lot of moving parts. Thankfully, there are people whose job it is to help you find clarity and determine your path. The best piece of advice I can give you here is just ask!

As far as academic paths go, having a conversation with an academic advisor can help you get a feel for whether you’re heading in the right direction. Being prepared by having a good idea of what you want and conveying your interests openly and honestly will give your advisor the best chance of advising you effectively. Side note: be sure to set an appointment to avoid the variable wait time for walk-ins.

Additionally, as a veteran, you’re going to need to know all about the benefits to which you are entitled so you can make the most of your college experience. Know the difference between Post 9/11 GI Bill Chapter 31, 33, and 35? I didn’t. For this, head to the Veterans Affairs campus liaison to get squared away. Don’t know where or who that is? Just ask!

If your campus has an Answer Center or something similar, make yourself a frequent visitor. Sure, you could find a lot of the answers online; but for the questions that seem less straight-forward, ask a professional there to help you.

Sometimes, we need resources not necessarily pertaining to school. It could be that transitioning back to civilian life is posing a significant challenge. Hypervigilance, depression, anxiety, etc., are all too common for veterans. There are resources to help — please, reach out for them.

I’ll tell you from personal experience that when I transitioned from a combat zone back to civilian life, I felt I had lost my purpose. Mental health counselors, either from the Department of Veterans Affairs or from your college, can be a tremendous asset in helping you stay focused, driven, and positive about life.

Step 4:  Get Involved

Let’s address the elephant in the room: maybe you didn’t want to return to college because of fear of failure. I’ve been there. College used to intimidate me; I thought I wasn’t the “college type.” Turns out I was wrong. But that pervasive negativity was all too real when I believed it.

Getting involved on campus was the best decision of my academic career — it showed me a way to realize my potential in the classroom, in college, and in life. Seriously, join a club or organization that challenges, encourages, and provides you opportunities for personal and professional development and allows you to stay connected with people.

Connecting with people you care about and who care about you is so important, I regularly hear stories from friends about how thankful they are for their network, and how they couldn’t have done it without them.

Don’t know how to get involved? Just ask! Your student leaders, advisors, and members can give you a first-person experience of what it’s like and point you in the right direction. Check with your campus office for Student Development/Engagement (names will vary based on institution) for a list of student clubs/organizations.

Step 5: Be Confident and Stay Humble

I saved the most important for last. This is intangible but, in my opinion, more useful than anything else. Be confident in your skills, yourself, and your ability to learn. Make it a point to continually reinforce what is called a “growth mindset” — basically, understanding that you may not be able to do something now, but through hard work and diligence, you will be able to in the future. Gain confidence from this.

Humility is attractive — people want to be around you. I want you to be confident, to believe in yourself, to jump in and get involved, and to make the most of your college experience and life. Just remain humble and always give back.

I want to end by again saying thank you. To all service members, the families and friends, and those who offer thanks and support to veterans, thank you! It truly means a lot.

Phi Theta Kappa is proud to offer a complimentary Military Service Honor Cord to our members who are both active military members and veterans. If your PTK record indicates that you are a member of the military, we will automatically include a Military Service Honor Cord free with your purchase of Phi Theta Kappa graduation regalia.

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