The Harsh Reality of Being a Veteran College Student

By Anna Woodring, MTI Strength & Conditioning Coach

In November 2020, I had to make a decision like many others do – whether to continue my military service or transition into the civilian sector. I loved the Marine Corps almost to a fault, so the thought of leaving it was not one I thought I would be making. Like most who have been in the military, once you get promoted, the job is not the same job you once had. In many cases, this is a good thing that leads to growth. As I continued to progress in rank, this led me farther away from my passion of training and being with my Marines. 

I felt that I had gone to every school the Marine Corps was offering me, and my future was going to be behind a desk. The decision, which did not come easily, led me to hang up the uniform and attend graduate school at the University of Georgia (UGA) to pursue a masters degree in Kinesiology. 

Originally, my thought process was that this should be easy, as I had already gone to college once for an undergraduate degree in 2009. Starting the process at UGA was painless. All that was needed to enroll was acceptance into the program you are applying for, which in my case was Kinesiology, and your VA eligibility letter. Luckily, UGA had a veterans certifying official who was a former Marine that made the process smooth.

On the first day of classes, I felt the sting of leaving the military community. At 30 years old, I was the oldest by six to eight years of everyone else in my classes. Most of the other students had never had a job other than a summer job or part-time work. I could instantly feel the disconnect between what they talked about and how they talked. 

Throughout my time in class, students consistently showed a lack of discipline that surprised me. They would show up late, use chat to message friends during class, stand in the middle of the road while texting, and have no situational awareness. This was annoying, but it escalated once I started working on group projects and in the lab with both graduate and undergraduate students. 

Communication outside of the military is like pulling teeth with students. I rarely got a response on upcoming projects, which led me to do most of the work since I refuse to wait until midnight on the day before it’s due. When trying to talk in person, most of them would be on their phones and only partially listening. Many were paying for school with “daddy’s money” so it is not surprising seeing their lack of concern towards their assignments. 

I thought that after so much time in the military, I would be open to less rigidity, but it was almost the opposite end of none. It was hard for me to connect with the students since some of their worst days were just them forgetting their coffee or one minor inconvenience. 

The term I heard throughout my time in class from the other students was “we are in the trenches,” which bothered the hell out of me since they have no concept of what that even means. 

Aside from missing being surrounded by disciplined individuals, another issue was the lack financial insecurity. The basic housing allowance for going to school is based on the cost of living and an E-5 pay grade, which, for Athens, was around $1,400 a month. Having only $1400 a month is not enough to live off of without a roommate and having a part-time job in the meantime. While transitioning from a house to an apartment for some could be difficult, for me, I just needed to ensure I had space for the essentials, which are my bike, snowboard, and clothes. 

Both undergraduate and graduate schools come with internships or graduate assistantships, and in my experience, most students live at their sites, which are typically unpaid or pay very little with no benefits. This leaves no time to work another job, meaning that $1400 is all you have if you want to get a solid recommendation from your supervisor. This leads to potentially looking at taking out a loan to pay for living expenses, which sucks, as you are a veteran and have earned your G.I Bill. 

Most military members are told they can go to school for free without working for 2-4 years. If you are great with your money and live frugally, it is possible, but it takes sacrificing many of the wants that we have grown accustomed to. 

Health insurance is another issue. I suggest staying attached to a unit if possible. If you’re not obligated, you have the ability to drop into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) at any time. This lets you potentially make money one weekend a month and have full benefits. It also gives you the ability to drop back into it if school and drill become too much. 

However, when I saw the amount that UGA wanted for health insurance, over $2,000 a semester, I called the closest unit. 

Managing the money, students, and my time for two years led to a degree. It wasn’t all bad, and I would do it all over again as it progressed my career and led to opportunities I would not have had if I did not go back to school. Yes, studying is hard again, but the discipline that we all have as military members is far greater than the other students in my classes, making me confident that any of my Marines could make it solely based on discipline. 

Key takeaways that, looking back, would have helped the transition be easier:

  • Save as much money as possible before leaving the military to prepare for school. Although your benefits cover the tuition, the housing allowance may not be sufficient, and internships/assistantships may limit your part-time work opportunities.
  • Embrace the discipline you learned in the military. Don’t let the lack of discipline among other students affect you every day like it did for me. If you lack confidence about going back to school, remember that you have overcome harder challenges. 
  • Look for a reserve unit while attending school. Reserve units are more flexible than active units and are aware that you are attending school. In most cases, they are willing to work with you. You have the ability to drop into the IRR at any time, so it’s worth considering. Additionally, you will receive benefits from being attached to a unit while in school. Health insurance for students at a university can cost over $2,000 per semester.

Anna is a full time MTI Strength & Conditioning Coach who works at our partnership facility in Boise, ID.

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