Eight years ago, I was sitting at home staring at my college applications. I sat and mulled over which personal anecdote would best demonstrate how I was an upstanding, bright young student who would contribute to the diverse environment of (insert here) University. Reality was that I was more concerned with upgrading my raid gear in World of Warcraft than attending classes. I was raised by a single mother and two sisters. There was no money for me to experiment with college. Yet, there I sat, staring at the computer screen, grasping for the words that would thrust me into the upper echelons of higher education. I wasn’t ready for college. I lacked the discipline, drive, and motivation. So I did the next best thing. I joined the Army.
There is a saying that is ubiquitously known by all veterans: “U.S. Army—user experience may vary.” It’s a saying that reverberates in every new private’s head as they pick up cigarette butts in the motor-pool or get chewed out by their emotionally abusive team leader. Some fit into the military like peas in a pod, while there are others who shut the door on their military career and never look back. For the most part, I enjoyed my military experience. It was physically and mentally taxing, and it transformed me into everything I was not when I was a young pimply teenager.
Despite whatever experience they had, every vet leaves the military a different person. Some gel back into civilian life like nothing ever happened, while others struggle in their transition. Less than 1 percent of citizens have served in the military in the past decade. Therefore, one of the most common issues facing veterans today is the ability to relate to non-veterans.
As a product of limited interaction with those who have served in the armed forces, popular stereotypes emerge that threaten to segregate veterans from the larger society. Stereotypes range from veterans as basket-cases suffering from crippling PTSD to veterans as war junkies who picked off insurgents with superhuman precision while dishing out high fives to their buddies. For some veterans, these stereotypes ring true, but veterans are like normal people—we all have our own personalities and experiences.
The GI Bill was introduced to bridge the growing divide between veterans and civilians by bringing veterans onto college campuses. For those unfamiliar with it, the GI Bill covers a veteran’s college tuition and provides a monthly living stipend after they have fulfilled their obligation to the military. Before the GI Bill was introduced in 1944, college was an experience that was primarily limited to the privileged, native-born elites. However, the GI Bill gave many working class veterans the opportunity to thrust themselves into the burgeoning post-war middle class. By 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of students enrolled in universities across America.
Now, veterans only account for 5 percent of enrolled students. Granted, this disparity may be due to today’s military existing as an all-volunteer force, rather than reliant on the draft system that engulfed most of society during World War II. The issue still stands that veterans are an underrepresented group on college campuses, despite that fact that veteran affairs are a talking point at the forefront for most politicians.
Before the Posse Veteran program arrived at the University in 2014, only two veterans had graduated from Wesleyan in the past decade. Now, there are 20 of us on campus, with an additional ten coming next year. I’m not arguing for a drastic increase of veterans on campus, or for Wes students to enlist at the nearest recruitment center in order to understand the veteran experience. Rather, I want to highlight some of the issues vets face on college campuses. Although we all come from different backgrounds in the military, we all faced some of the same barriers when returning to school. Most notably—how the hell do I study or write a paper after six (or more) years away from school, and how the hell do I relate to the other students?
Most student veterans are older than the traditional age college students, and some have families and children that they need to balance alongside schoolwork. In addition, some of us suffer from service-related disabilities. The advantage to attending school with other veterans is that we don’t have to feel alone when we’re struggling. We can pick each other up because we understand the difficulties of starting fresh again.
Some may think vets may receive special treatment on campus because we enjoy a close relationship with the administration. However, all of the Posse vets applied to Wesleyan through the Common App–just like every other student–and had to do a three-round interview process on top of it. I don’t know if I would be as successful without the administration’s support. Whether it comes to housing, financial aid, VA benefits, or counseling, the administration has helped us stay on track. By removing the barriers to academic success, we can take a more active role in campus life.
By participating in sports teams, fraternities, societies, clubs, or other academic and social endeavors, we have been able to separate ourselves from our collective identities as “the vets” and have taken on our own personalities and relationships with other students. I’ve never felt like a disembodied entity floating on the fringes of campus life. I’ve always felt like a Wes student since I’ve been here.
George Washington once said, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” This is a saying that cuts both ways. Veterans coming to Wes should not consider themselves a body distinct from the rest of campus. They need to actively try to integrate themselves. Wes students should see veterans for the individuals that they are and not let the stereotypes of basket-cases and war junkies cloud their perception.
Olivieri is a member of the class of 2018.