Campus News

From Soldier to Student


LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 9, 2010) − Army E-5 Sergeant Jonathan Herst had just finished a day-long mission in Mosul, Iraq, when his squad was called. An improvised explosive device (IED) had been found on the road they were traveling, and his squad's job was to surround it and try to find the trigger man. But his commander had warned that the enemy was using secondary IEDs to take out soldiers as they surrounded the primary weapon. In just such an attack, an unseen trigger man watched as Herst unknowingly approached a second explosive. The attacker dialed the number of a cell phone detonator as the soldier came within range. Herst lost his leg that day.

Now, 17 surgeries and five years later, the Rockville, Maryland native is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. He is employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and is less than a year from earning his master's degree in social work. The transition from soldier to student wasn't easy, but UK's support of student veterans - stepped up in recent years - helped him succeed.

A difficult transition

Though Herst had earned a bachelor's degree before he enlisted in the Army in 2001, school was different this time around.

"I think it was more nerve-racking than anything," he said of his transition from military combat back to student life. "Those are two totally different environments. I was scared about how I was going to fit in."

Like many veterans returning from combat, Herst found himself hyper-vigilant in the classroom. He talked about those challenges during an interview for UK's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History project, "From Combat to Kentucky."

"I always wanted to know my escape route," he said in the interview. "I always wanted to check my surroundings to make sure I could get out if somebody came in shooting. My anxiety levels were through the roof."    

Herst was open with his professors, explaining to them why he sometimes needed to leave class.

"These are just things you have to try to work through," he said. "You have to go to counseling and take the skills that you learn into the classroom with you."

Nathan Noble, a social work undergraduate from Woodford County who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps, said part of the difficulty with adjusting to life as a student is the different approaches to problems in the military and civilian world. While soldiers are trained to work together toward a common goal, the opposite is often true in the classroom and throughout civilian life.

"How you approach problems as a civilian is totally different than the way you would approach problems in the Marine Corps," he said. "As a civilian, you're almost working against other people because you're trying to advance yourself."

Differences in age and life experience add to the gap between student veterans and the general student body. Politics can widen that gap, as some students, faculty and administrators may stereotype soldiers or assume they come from a certain political ideology.

"I think it's just a lack of knowledge," Herst said. "People get these ideas from the media or from their parents."

But veterans also may have some advantages in the classroom. The additional life experience, particularly under the extreme stress of combat, Noble said, leads student veterans to look for solutions rather than excuses to problems.

"The mentality is there's no problem that you can't fix," Noble explained. "In the military, in the infantry in Iraq or Afghanistan, if there is a problem, there is always a solution. If you have the mentality that there is no solution, people lose their lives, people get hurt."

Herst echoed that approach when talking about school stress during the Nunn Center interview. "When people talk about the stress of taking a final exam - that's not stress," he said. "A kid going from undergrad straight into grad - that's not stress."

Noble said later that his advice for student veterans making the transition to the classroom is to call on their military training and skills. "Take all the experience you have coming out of the military - all your leadership skills, your ability to make good decisions, being on time, doing an assignment - take all of these skills you've learned in the military and apply them to school," he said.

UK steps up support

Tony Dotson has spent the last four years working to make UK a university where student veterans feel supported. The retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel from Cleveland, Virginia became director of the newly formed UK Veterans Resource Center a year ago.

"I've been working for four years here to help close the gap between those who have served and those who haven't," Dotson said. "Those who haven't served need to know that veterans are just like them."

He works with department chairs, faculty and administrators to raise awareness of veterans issues, provide additional services like tutoring, and remove hurdles in admissions, housing and financial aid that veterans may experience. He wants the Veterans Resource Center to be a place where student veterans feel at ease.

Dotson's office in the Center is full of books on military history and strategy. But the most prominent feature is the line of academic degrees hanging above his desk. It's a reminder to student veterans that their job now is to succeed in their education, just as they succeeded in their military service.

"I want the veteran who walks in to see that this is a comfortable place," Dotson said of the military items. "But I want them to see that their next step is getting their education."

Part of Dotson's job is to help veterans beat the odds. Student veterans struggle academically more than the general student population.

"Nationally, our veterans are not succeeding at the same rate as the general student body," said Dotson. "We're trying to fix that."

Dotson cites two underlying reasons why veterans may struggle when they become students. The first is the disconnect they feel with their classmates.

"They're not going to turn to their 18-year-old classmate and say, 'Hey, I don't get it,'" he said. "They're prideful. They're used to doing things on their own and not looking for help."

The second factor is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Dotson says many student veterans, particularly those returning from combat, suffer from the disorder.

"A lot of the things that go along with that aren't conducive to good study habits," said Dotson. "We make sure they know about the Disability Resource Center, and counseling at the V.A. and Frazee. We're blessed to have so many resources nearby."

Veterans also can have a tough time beyond academics. Socializing with students who are younger and have far less life experience can be difficult for student veterans.

"Our returning veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, feel like they have zero in common with other college students," Dotson said. "We're trying to establish an environment where they can succeed."

That includes housing set aside just for student veterans, including units for married veterans and those with families. Dotson said that while he hasn't gotten all the housing units he needs for the veterans, he has made progress. Housing is key for veterans transitioning to school, particularly because it's an issue they didn't have to deal with while serving.

"The military takes good care of its folks - housing is provided," Dotson said. "If I can take something off their plate, that first year is key for that transition."

An orientation class just for veterans helps new student veterans make a successful transition to life at UK. Dotson also teaches a course called Military 101 for anyone in the UK community, to help non-veterans better understand the military and the challenges student veterans face.
The University of Kentucky Military Veterans of America (UKMVA), a student organization dedicated to supporting UK student veterans, was instrumental in the formation of the Veterans Resource Center by giving veterans a forum from which to bring their concerns to UK administrators. The passing of the Post 9/11 GI Bill in 2008 provided full financial support for both veterans and their dependents to go to college. UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy and other university leadership recognized the growing need for a center to support these veterans and address student needs, and under Dotson's direction the Center became a reality in June 2009. Since then, the number of student veterans and their dependents at UK has increased from 350 to more than 500.

Streamlining the process

Noble remembers a meeting he attended with other student veterans during the early days of the Veterans Resource Center. "Veterans were voicing their concerns and their experiences," Noble remembered. "A lot of the things that I had encountered were fixed within a month."      

UK began recognizing transfer credits from the military immediately upon a student's first semester at the university, rather than requiring the student to first accrue a certain number of hours at UK. Rolling admissions were introduced for veterans, who may be deployed during the regular admissions window and unable to make the usual deadline. And the process of paying for tuition, books and housing expenses through the Post-9/11 GI Bill was streamlined. This is important for veterans who have earned those educational benefits, but may be waiting for paperwork to clear and payments to be disbursed.

"The university has really worked with the student veterans to say, 'You've done everything you need to do. Don't worry about the money. Concentrate on your studies, we know the money is coming,'" Noble said.

Don Witt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, called the Veterans Resource Center an important addition to the entire university.

"Having the Center has helped us to collaborate across multiple units to streamline and provide enhanced services to our veteran student population," Witt said. "For those who have served and represented our country so well, it is our mission to also give back and provide educational support."

Perhaps just as important as academic support is the understanding and camaraderie student veterans find in the Veterans Resource Center.

"The biggest advice I can offer for new student veterans is to visit the Veterans Resource Center," Herst said. "I would do that before I went to class, before I bought my books - to get an understanding that you are not alone."

UK's increased support for student veterans hasn't gone unnoticed. G.I. Jobs magazine recently recognized UK as a 'military-friendly school' for the second year in a row. It is recognition of the progress UK has made in recent years towards becoming a place where veterans are welcomed and supported.

"People coming through the GI Bill are mostly non-traditional students - they're worried about housing, they've got a second job, they've got families," Noble said. "So the university has been very, very helpful across the board."