What Are Common Adjustment Experiences?

Actively appreciating and valuing diversity on college campuses means knowing the backgrounds and experiences of students. Understanding student Veterans means understanding military culture, battlefield skills, and deployment related stressors. It also means listening to student stories, and understanding the unique stressors faced by student Veterans on campus.

Student Stories

Listen to the stories of student Veterans adjusting to different types of schools (e.g., community college, university, graduate school) by visiting the popular website Half of Us.

Additional stories on the experiences of Student Veterans can be found through the VA outreach program, Make the Connection.

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Military family playing in park.
Common Experiences While in the Military

Military culture and battlefield skills can be deeply internalized by many Service Members. Sometimes, core beliefs and principles learned through military service can conflict with the beliefs and principles underlying higher education. For example, following orders and respecting rank and formality may run counter to the independent thinking and informality encouraged in many classrooms.

Learn More About Military Culture and Battlefield Skills:

Take a quiz on your knowledge of military experiences/terms.

View an online training by Dr. Patricia Watson. Dr. Watson provides an overview of the military and military culture, as well as deployment related experiences. The course is designed so that particular sections can be selected and viewed.

Visit "Real Warriors" to understand battlefield skills and their impact on successful reintegration.

Handout on deployment related stressors and war zone experiences.

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Student Veteran Experiences on Campus

Veterans returning from combat may face some challenges in adjusting to college life. The Returning from the War Zone Guides provide an overview of these issues. Surveys, special reports, and focus groups indicate that Student Veterans struggle with the administration of their GI benefits, academic engagement, and social relationships. Two recent reports highlight the experiences of Student Veterans on campus, both in terms of engagement with education and academic success.

Preliminary research suggests that student Veterans struggle with school administration, academic performance, and social relationship.

School Administration

Student Veterans consistently report that the Post 9/11 GI Bill helped with their adjustment to school. Almost 25% of student Veterans report that the Post 9/11 bill was a major influence in their decision to pursue higher education. Nonetheless, negotiating GI Educational Benefits and transferring credits obtained while in the military are two stressful experiences reported by student Veterans.

Negotiating Government Issued (GI) Educational Benefits

  • Student Veterans report difficulty with getting their GI Bill benefits in place, especially Post-9/11 benefits. Keeping track of payments, late payments, and even overpayments were reported as problematic, especially early on.
  • Although many schools provide priority registration for student Veterans, enrollment in classes or being dropped from classes because of late payment introduced some hardship.
  • Even with GI Bill benefits, about 66% of student Veterans report struggles with supporting themselves and their family while they attend school.

Transferring Credits

  • Although the American Council on Education provides guidelines for evaluating the educational experiences of Service Members, and certain institutions are recognized as Service Member Opportunity Colleges (SOC), some student Veterans report difficulty with credit transfer rules, especially if they are attending a public institution.
  • The average number of transfer credits is about 18, with an average of 12 for public two year schools and 24 for private institutions.

Academic Performance

Student Veterans report mixed concerns about academic success. Some report a readiness for school work that is heightened by their military experience. Other students report concerns about performing up to academic standards. Courses and trainings in the military can be quite duty-specific and practical, while college classes and assignments can be more general and abstract.

As a whole, research findings suggest that Student Veterans spend more time preparing for classes, and talking with instructors outside of class than civilian students. Student Veterans are less likely to participate in experiential learning opportunities, for example, internships or practicums. Despite obstacles and challenges, the Million Records Project found that Student Veterans are as likely to graduate as civilian students.

Social Relationships

Student Veterans may find that they do not fit in with other college students. Finding like-minded peers on campus can be difficult. Dealing with younger students who may be perceived as being overly entitled or not serious about their studies can contribute to a sense of being different. It can be difficult for student Veterans to be patient with complaints about the daily hassles of being a student.

For examples of how Veteran experiences may contrast with student life, consider viewing these slides put together by Dr. Bill Burns at North Dakota State University.

Biases against the military may be another stressor for student Veterans. Biases can be expressed in many ways on college campuses. Professors and students may hold strong negative opinions about the military and voice them in class. Readings and assignments may be biased toward a particular perspective. Antimilitary signs and/or protestors against the military may be on campus. These kinds of biases against the military may contribute to a sense of social isolation.

Biases and stereotypes facing student Veterans are presented in this brief video made by Service Members and Veterans. Please note: some viewers may find the language and humor offensive.

Being asked inappropriate questions about their military experience, or being asked to be a spokesperson for student Veterans can also interfere with relationship building. Social interactions are also limited by competing demands. For example, although student Veterans spend the same amount of time studying as non-Veterans, they spend significantly more time working and caring for dependents. Indeed, student Veterans are often considered "nontraditional" students.

Unlike traditional undergraduates who often enroll in college immediately after high school, attend school full time, receive financial support from parents, and are single without dependents, student Veterans are older, married or coupled, attend school part-time, and are more likely to be working and using the GI benefits to pay for their education. Research shows that close to 60% of student Veterans report concerns about balancing school and other responsibilities.

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Student Veterans and Disabilities

Other problems that some student Veterans face are physical and emotional disabilities. Physical problems may mean that it takes a student Veteran longer to get to class. Other physical problems may interfere with note taking or classroom participation. The two most common physical disabilities are listed below. Take a moment to consider how these may impact school performance:

  • Musculoskeletal problems (e.g., amputations, joint pain, back pain).
    Possible impact: Difficulty sitting for long periods of time, uncomfortable in standard desk, unable to hold pen/pencil or use a keyboard, frequent medical appointments, medication side-effects, mobility.
  • Hearing problems (e.g., hearing loss, tinnitus ("ringing" in ear)).
    Possible impact: Need for special seating or equipment, annoyance, missed conversations, difficulty "jumping in".

Up to one-third of student Veterans may be struggling with "invisible wounds" of war: traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, or major depression. These conditions can also impact school performance. For example, all three "invisible wounds" can impact the ability to concentrate and complete assignments. Find out more below in the "What is PTSD?" section of this toolkit.

  • Invisible Wounds (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression and anxiety).
    Research from the National Center for Veteran Studies suggests that symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression are significant in student Veterans. Thoughts about suicide are also a serious concern. Additional research is needed with a large and representative sample of student Veterans.

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What is PTSD?
Mature student mom reading outside with son.

Did you know?

Most people who have experienced a traumatic event do NOT develop a mental disorder.

PTSD stands for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can develop after someone has experienced a traumatic event, for example, combat or a physical or sexual assault. Although most people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life time, only a small percentage will develop PTSD. Over 90% of returning Veterans have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, however, only 10-30% will develop PTSD.

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Deployment-related Stressors and Traumatic Events

Did you know?

Traumatic events are NOT the same as daily hassles or even major life events (e.g., divorce, moving, etc).

Traumatic events are different than daily life stressors in at least two ways. First, traumatic events are often experienced as life-threatening, and most life stressors are not. Second, our hardwired fight or flight (or freeze) response is often activated during a traumatic event. Such intense emotional reactions make traumatic events much more salient and memorable than other events. Research on deployment-related stress suggests that most Service Members experienced chronic, daily life stressors as well as traumatic events.

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Overview of PTSD

PTSD is a stress related disorder characterized by four symptom clusters:

  1. Reliving or re-experiencing the event: Symptoms in this cluster include intrusive thoughts and flashbacks about the event as well as dreams/nightmares about the event and distress (both physical and psychological) when reminded of the event.
  2. Avoidance: Avoiding people and places that remind you of the trauma, as well as emotions and feelings associated with the trauma.
  3. Negative thoughts and feelings: Guilt, blame, and feeling distant or cutoff from the environment or others are examples in this symptom cluster.
  4. Alterations in arousal: Difficulty concentrating and falling/staying asleep are included in this symptom cluster, along with hypervigilance, exaggerated startle, irritability, and aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.

Below is a link to the full diagnostic criteria:

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PTSD in Student Veterans

In the classroom, or on campus, PTSD symptoms may be observable in some of the following ways:

Two Veterans shaking hands outside.
  1. Re-experiencing: Classroom discussions about the military and war-zone experiences may trigger distress (e.g., anger, anxiety) in student Veterans. Sometimes the triggers are not so obvious.
  2. Avoidance: It's always difficult to understand the reason behind avoidance. If a student Veteran is not attending or participating in class, careful consideration should be given as to why. Detachment from others, or feeling different from other students, may be contributing to avoidance.
  3. Negative Thoughts and Feelings: Student Veterans may experience the concerns and worries of other students as trivial and unimportant, especially if they are struggling with feelings of guilt or shame related to the trauma. It is not uncommon for Veterans with PTSD to struggle with depression as well.
  4. Alterations in Arousal: Difficulty sitting still, scanning the environment, and startle responses may be observable in the classroom.

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes created this 14 minute video to capture the experience of going to school with PTSD. Please note that this video clip contains graphic imagery that may be disturbing.

See the What Can I Do to Help? section for suggestions for how to make your classroom and campus welcoming to student Veterans.

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Learn More About PTSD

Complete an online narrated course on Understanding PTSD that includes video clips of trauma survivors with PTSD and information on getting help.

Download a PDF booklet that covers much of the same information as the course.

Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Veterans who live with it every day. Hear their stories. Find out how treatment turned their lives around.

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A group of soccer players leave the pratice field.