Veterans of the classroom

Veteran

Compared to intense military training, frequent deployment and strict regiments, entering college may not seem much of a challenge for veterans. Still, each veteran faces his or her own challenges when seeking higher education.

Cpl. Mitch Phillips, 32, joined the Marine Corps as a way to see the world and get an experience he knew he couldn’t receive anywhere else. After successfully enduring training, working in Security Forces and deploying all around the world, he readied for his next challenge – pursuing a degree in aerospace studies at the University of Miami.

“No transition could have helped me enough for this one,” Phillips said. “This school is very demanding and it expects a lot and offers a lot, which for a person like me, who gets very involved in everything, can get over whelming.”

Along with academic pressures, senior Phillips encountered more problems involving the paperwork he had to fill out, because he was both a military and transfer student. Because of the vast amount of paperwork was sent to several offices,  he didn’t know he was admitted to the university until one week before classes started.

His personal experience led him to connect with other veterans who formed the Veteran’s Student Organization (VSO), a group to support veterans and the challenges they face when adjusting to life at the university.

“The biggest thing we want is to alleviate the issues students run into when starting school here,” said Phillips, president of the VSO. “We want to exist to help and create smooth transitions for incoming veterans.”

The aims of the VSO reflect the campus-wide initiative to increase the efforts and programs being offered to student veterans. The Dean of Students Office, for instance, has ordered a new computer for the veterans to assist them with whatever they need, according to Dean Dayle Wilson, advisor of VSO.

“I noticed a lot of PSAs and ads talking about hiring a veteran, supporting veterans, and this is a global issue, not just here on campus,” Wilson said. “It’s good everyone is taking some responsibility because they’re willing to give their lives for their country. The least we can do is make their transition easier and help them find their place,” Wilson said.

For Sgt. Krystine Smith, 23, music had been something she loved since she was a child. She had played flute for 12 years and wanted to pursue a degree in music therapy. This love of music inspired her to serve her country in the Marine Corps band.

After traveling around the country to locations such as New York City, San Fransciso and New Orleans, she saw a different side of the Marine Corps, which consisted of performing for high-ranking officials and being surrounded by other sergeants and corporals.

Her biggest difficulty was adjusting to the student body at UM. Age-wise, Smith, a freshman, said she felt closer to the teachers than to the students. She felt her experience in the military set her apart from her classmates, because they lack the level of discipline she became accustomed to in the Corps.

“Before, I wasn’t focused. I didn’t care much about school,” Smith said. “I wasn’t social or confidant or comfortable with myself but the Marines taught me determination and how to handle responsibilities. If I had gone straight into college, I wouldn’t have been successful.”

At 17, Sgt. Joel Gomez graduated high school early and became an aviation mechanic in the Marine Corps. He worked on F-18s and was deployed to Japan, Iraq and Afghanistan. He even made a detour to South Korea where he was stationed during the missile tensions between North and South Korea.

“We had to be prepared just in case,” Gomez said. “You’re always prepared to deploy. You get used to getting moved to another location. It teaches you to be adaptive.”

With that lesson in mind, Gomez, now 23 and a senior, still had difficulty adjusting to being a full-time student at UM, because he felt the workload and the expectations at the large university were much more demanding. He lost his comfort blanket, Gomez said.

He felt pressure and told himself he couldn’t fail since he had left the Marine Corps to go to UM and didn’t want to disappoint his family, or himself.

“I’ve adapted,” Gomez said. “It’s what we do. We find obstacles, make up a plan, and if we don’t succeed, we try again and we try again. We don’t give up.”

Both the Veteran Students Organization and the Veteran Student Program are available on campus to assist veterans with the transition into life at the university. For more information, visit facebook.com/groups/UMVets.

The university also maintains a Veterans Affairs (V.A.) Office in the office of the registrar, 121 University Center.

This article originally appeared in The Miami Hurricane on September 5, 2012.

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