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From Combat to Classroom: Veterans Cite a Number of Advantages

Greg Dye paced through the frigid New Hampshire winter on his way to class with his backpack on and hands tucked deep inside his coat pockets. He walked past bare deciduous trees and tucked his chin down in an attempt to stay warm. Greg was on his way to his first college class and he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. He wasn’t 18-years-old and coming off a summer full of beaches and trips to the mall with friends. Greg was 25 and coming off a seven-year hiatus from taking any type of academic coursework at all.

When Greg arrived at his first class, he wasn’t like many of his classmates. When Greg was leading his fellow soldiers in fights against insurgents in Iraq four years prior, in 2007, many of his new peers were barely starting high school.

His early ambivalence, however, was overcome once after some time on campus. Greg’s grade point average in high school was 2.5. After his Greg’s first few semesters on campus, it was over 3.6.

“Being older made all the difference,” Greg says. “I went to campus with a great deal of experiences in life, and it helped me focus in on what I really wanted to do.”

Many of today’s military veterans step on to college campuses for the first time in their lives when they are in their 20’s, 30’s, or later, and they sometimes find the adjustment to higher education challenging, for a variety of reasons. Many veterans also cite significant advantages they have when they begin taking college coursework because of the traits they picked up in the military: traits such as discipline, adaptability, and a second-to-none work ethic.

Stephanie Disney, a native of Lodgepole, Nebraska, began taking college classes at Western Nebraska Community College after serving in the United States Army from 2003-2008. When she stepped onto her college campus for the first time, she had many obstacles to work through, such as not having many fellow classmates with whom she could easily relate. She did have, however, something that she felt other students did not.

“When I came to college, I was much older than the traditional students, but I had been used to working hard in the military, and I had that whole ‘party mentality’ out of the way. I was ready to work hard to get my degree, and I think being older and more mature was an advantage for me.”

Many other veterans who head towards college agree. AJ Brown, who is finishing his studies at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, California, served five years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Serving as a non-commissioned officer taught him how to lead others in difficult and stressful environments at both home and abroad.

“When I started classes after serving in the military, I think military experience helped me. The job skills didn’t necessarily translate to studying music, but all the intangibles did, like having a solid work ethic and being responsible. I think being older has helped, too.”

Veterans of the United States military are heading to college campuses with force. Over 2.4 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. Benefits like the Post 9/11 GI Bill have made the dreams of attending college for veterans a reality. With access to financial benefits and the character traits many veterans pick up while serving, only the future can tell what feats today’s generation of American veterans will accomplish.

--Jeremy Stevens