Written By: Shawn Miller
When I returned home from Iraq in 2011, I had one distinct goal: to go back to school. My enlistment was ending and it seemed like I had a solid plan at the time, but I underestimated the adjustment process of transitioning from the military to higher education.
For many veterans, the task of going to school after their service is daunting. How do we replace the familiar regimentation? Or the camaraderie of old units? Just fitting in and finding one’s place as a non-traditional student often poses challenges.
As a graduate student, I don’t really qualify as a “non-traditional” student, but I still found myself struggling to adapt. It had been six years since I graduated from undergrad, and after leaving the Army, I found myself apprehensive at the thought of sitting in a classroom again.
But when I arrived at Syracuse University, I found there were many others like me, and even a campus chapter of Student Veterans of America (SVA), a national organization of student veterans who had banded together to help fellow veterans overcome the hurdles of transitioning to higher ed. I knew nothing about SVA before setting foot on campus and becoming a student again, but they have provided the missing link for many in the student veteran community.
Far more than “clubs” for students to get together and tell war stories, these chapters offer support and advocacy, as well as a place to feel comfortable. Syracuse turned out to be a much more fitting place for school than I had originally thought, and becoming involved with the SVA chapter here introduced me to a wealth of programs benefitting student veterans.
I think one of the things that I missed most after leaving the military was being involved in something much larger and far-reaching than my own personal ambitions. Getting involved with the SVA took me to their national conference in Florida this past January, where a group of Syracuse veterans joined with hundreds of others from chapters across the country to network, discuss goals and transform into a cohesive advocacy group to be taken seriously. Without a cohesive voice, who would speak for us when the country is told that 88% of student veterans drop out of school soon after enrollment?
Many of us, myself included, have felt out of place at school, but that is exactly why we need to stay and let others like us know they are welcome and we have their backs. Even after taking off my uniform, I feel like I still have a chance to serve and give back to those helping me. Beyond any official program or monetary aid, the roots of these SVA chapters remain in maintaining that community and helping us all on the long road to our common goal: graduation.
Shawn Miller is a master’s degree candidate in the multimedia, photography and design department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He served as a public affairs noncommissioned officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 109th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, and deployed to Iraq from 2010-11 as part of Operation New Dawn.