Life experience distinguishes student veterans
November 10, 2014
When the university community gathers tomorrow to mark Veterans Day, it will stand with a group of non-traditional students who bring a different perspective to their education.
There are about 300 student veterans enrolled at Virginia Tech, and while for the most part they blend in with their civilian counterparts, there are differences which distinguish them.
“It’s pretty easy to recognize fellow veterans,” said Paul Hill of Salem, Virginia, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. “Many have visible military indications, including tattoos and haircuts.”
Justin Johnson of Mears, Virginia, a junior majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering, said he can sometimes identify fellow veterans “by the way they carry themselves.”
But those are just the visible differences. Anthony Scott, associate dean of students, said there are also less tangible differences in experience, knowledge, and maturity.
“Many student veterans come to campus with life knowledge that a lot of their counterparts have not experienced, said Scott. “Student veterans also have a world of experience when it comes to working a full-time job, which many traditional students don’t have.”
Scott, a veteran himself who spent ten years in the army, said he noticed this when he returned to school as an undergraduate at Indiana Wesleyan University.
“Many civilian students looked at college as a stepping stone toward a job,” Scott said. “I looked at it as something to better myself, to be able to help my society at some point.”
As the advisor for Veterans@VT, Scott is doing just that. The organization was founded in 2010 and is a chapter of Student Veterans of America. Veterans@VT advocates for student veterans and provides a forum for camaraderie among students who have served their country.
“Essentially what we do is provide a liaison between the student veterans and the faculty for student services,” said Hill, who serves as president of the student group. “Outside of that, we do a lot of philanthropy projects, directed more towards veterans around the Blacksburg area. Last fall we built a house for a Marine who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan.”
By working with Virginia Tech’s academic services, student success center, and the Office of Veterans Services, Veterans@VT also helps ease the social and academic transition for incoming and current student veterans, which can be problematic.
“There are a lot of challenges faced academically and in adjusting to the university atmosphere,” Hill said. He employed a military term, “snapping in,” to describe “getting your bearings on the academic life.”
Johnson, who is the secretary-treasurer of Veterans@VT, said it was sometimes difficult to relate to his younger civilian counterparts, but he found that student veterans had a tendency to take leadership roles in a classroom setting.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about us,” Hill said. “And it has to do with deployments, the disconnection between what actually goes on overseas, and how that affects us as people.”
“Because of TV, a lot of people see veterans as either two categories: as heroes or broken,” Scott said, adding that these stereotypes often don’t reflect the veterans’ view of themselves.
Scott, Hill, and Johnson all noted that civilians occasionally ask them inappropriate questions about their service, such as whether they’d killed anyone or developed post-traumatic stress disorder. “We’re very stable individuals, generally,” Hill said. “We’ve been out there, we’ve been through some very difficult situations thus far in life, and most of the veterans are extremely mature for our age.”
On Veteran’s Day, in addition to the commemorative events hosted by the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, Veterans@VT is participating in a national roll call tradition to honor veterans’ service. On Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Pylons, Virginia Tech will join colleges and universities across the nation in reading the names of the fallen from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Participation by non-veterans is encouraged.
Written by Emily Hughes of Ashburn, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.