Helping Student Veterans Find Success in the Classroom

The return to civilian life post-deployment may be one of the biggest adjustments Veterans will have in their career. Student Veterans, in particular, may be especially challenged. In addition to re-acclimating to their family and friends, they must adjust to the rigors of college and some unforeseen obstacles.

“It can be weird, “admits Tim Dube, Veteran Outreach Coordinator at Home Base. “You go from serving combat tours in Iraq to sitting in a classroom and working on group projects with your peers– many of whom are four to eight years younger and may have come to college right from high school with little to no life experience.”

That discomfort may lead to the student Veteran isolating themselves, and that does not set them up for success.

“When you serve overseas, you have a like-minded band of brothers and sisters, all of your meals are prepared for you, and your exercise regime is prescribed. You have a clear duty and a path to achieve your mission,” explains Brig. Gen. (ret.) Jack Hammond, Executive Director of Home Base. “When you come home, there’s sometimes too much wiggle room. There’s no one yelling at you to get a work out in, there’s an abundance of easy, unhealthy food choices. Some folks return in peak physical shape and six, nine months after coming home, they realize they have gained weight and just don’t feel good about themselves. If a student Veteran is already feeling disconnected… these other issues only further compound the feelings of isolation.”

“Disconnection and isolation can begin as a way of protecting oneself and even others, but usually produces a vicious cycle of feeling down, dissatisfied, and pessimistic about the future,” says Dr. Bonnie Ohye PhD, Director, Family Program, at Home Base. “If someone is challenged by invisible wounds such as depression, trouble sleeping, chronic pain, or post-traumatic stress symptoms, everything feels worse. Our goal at Home Base is to look at the whole Veteran, not just on a diagnosis, and figure out ways to get him or her back to optimal health.”

To help student Veterans succeed in the classroom, Home Base provides cognitive screens, Neuopsychology tests, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) screens, all of which can shed light on injuries that may have been incurred during a deployment. Veterans who may have experienced frustration after feeling “slower” in school than they had before they deployed sometimes discover that a TBI has been inhibiting their ability to perform successfully as a student.

“Cognitive health, which is important for optimal performance in school, can be impacted by a number of biological, psychological and social factors,” says Dr. Alexis Iaccarino, MD, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician at Home Base. “Traumatic brain injury, which results from a blow to the head or body, may contribute to suboptimal cognitive health and struggles in the classroom. TBI evaluations at Home Base can identify, assess, and treat the many factors that contribute to cognitive health, including brain injury, learning disabilities, ADHD, sleep disorders, PTSD, mood disturbance, pain, substance use, and others. Student veterans that optimize their cognitive function may perform better both in and out of the classroom.”

In addition to providing these screenings, Home Base offers its nutrition and workout program called Warrior Health & Fitness to help Veterans maintain a healthy and physically fit lifestyle post-service. Additionally, Home Base offers a mind-body program, titled Resilient Warrior, aimed at helping address and mitigate symptoms a Veteran may deal with such as hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, and the negative impact of stress. Both of these programs focus on the wellness of the warrior, but they also serve to provide Veterans with the sense of community and camaraderie that they may be missing in their civilian lives.

So what can YOU do to help a student Veteran adjust as they prepare to enter college this fall, or if you come across a fellow student who recently returned home from overseas? The Veterans on the Home Base staff agree:

Encourage them to connect with their local Veteran Service Officer.
Veteran Service Officers will know everyone in the area and their job is to help Veterans apply for benefits such as comp and pen (VA) and monetary benefits through the state and federal governments. They also attend quarterly professional development conferences to share best practices and stay up to date on services and organizations in place to help Veterans across a full spectrum of needs.

Encourage him/her to make a plan.
Research schools that are truly military friendly, know what sort of degree you want, and have a long-term plan so that you can use your benefits from being in the military effectively. Not all schools allow you to go at your own pace, a lot of medical degrees are very structured and will drop you if you fall behind your peer group. Seek out the answers to these concerns ahead of time. Not all schools will accommodate your requests to help you perform well in school. Not all Veteran Services Coordinators have the same goals or methodology. Some will certify your benefits to ensure tuition is being paid, and the help ends there. Others will be a one stop shop and will address any need you bring to their attention.

Help him/her recognize that higher education is a lofty commitment.
In most cases, it takes 4 years to complete a BS/BA degree. Don’t begin the process without talking with your spouse about finances, scheduling, child care, etc. Many Veterans jump into school because the benefits are available and it is a logical next step after separating from the military. Make sure your finances are in order in case your water heater breaks or you need to replace your roof, life can be a big distracter and impede your academic success.

Seek help if you need it, offer help if you can give it.
The military culture and missions constantly ask individuals and their families to sacrifice for the country; pass the baton to the next generation and adjust your focus to the ones who stood by you during your military service.

For more information, visit homebase.org or call the clinic at 617-724-5202.