Since the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions in 2003, more than 500,000 service members have entered into post-secondary education. While the military offers financial support to veterans transitioning from combat to classroom, it doesn’t address one recurring issue that student vets face: Self-esteem while in the classroom.
“I did feel a bit nervous competing with people not my age,” says Samantha Demezieux, a 28-year-old former Marine who attends Columbia University in New York City for Middle Eastern studies.
A 2016 study found that nearly half of veterans felt unprepared for civilian life — especially those who were in combat and suffer from medical issues — and even less prepared to deal with the anxieties of being on a college campus.
“When you enter the military, it’s so easy to go from a civilian and turn into a soldier, but not the other way around,” says Michael P. Abrams, executive director for the Center for Veteran Transition and Integration at Columbia University. “We need to be better at engaging veterans and letting them know that they have opportunities. It’s definitely an area for improvement.”
There’s a measurable benefit in having vets on campuses, says Abrams. He says it’s the mixture of street smarts and book smarts that make for better diversity in classrooms.
“Diversity is something everyone’s talking about, that should also include experience and age and what you’ve done with this life,” he says. “When you’re discussing Middle Eastern politics in an academic setting, it helps to have a vet who has been in Iraq in 2012 with the elections. It brings such tangible learning experiences to a classroom you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
Demezieux says her — and other student vets’ — perspectives have been widely welcomed, which has remedied some of her initial anxieties.
“I’ve sat in a couple classes where the professor or teacher’s assistant was privy to me being a vet, and they ask for context,” she says.
In addition to political perspectives, vets enter the classroom with a variety of soft skills taught in the military that education programs — not just universities — have been able to capitalize on, such as on-the-fly learning and leadership qualities.
At NPower, a nonprofit that specializes in training veterans for tech jobs, the organization capitalizes on those soft skills to help place their students in jobs.
Graduates of its 26-week coding bootcamps have seen tremendous success, with some veterans securing jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families — even without advanced coding skills that stem from a more formal education.
“What we’re seeing is that companies are hiring from us because they are beginning to recognize that veterans have such tremendous life skills they can bring to the table,” says Brittany Worden, program manager for NPower’s veterans courses. “What they’re saying is, ‘Hey, we want personality and willingness to learn over skills.’”
Worden says that Citi, one of the primary businesses that recruits from NPower, has been most receptive in hiring vets, with more than 100 interns and close to 50 full-time staff. “They’ve just taken our students and built on what they learn here within their position.”
One of those students, Nick Carillo, was an NPower intern and now is the program manager for Citi’s Architecture and Technology Engineering Analyst program.
“In the first few months after separating, I applied to at least 80 positions. I felt it was hard to understand corporate structure and life, so it was hard to answer interview questions at first,” he says, but adds that the soft skills he learned in service have helped him in his current career. “Being drilled to aggressively attack goals and to never give up has just been invaluable to me. I feel that’s why people look to hire veterans; they want people that not only have talent but ambition to put that talent to use.”
One of the biggest challenges at NPower is getting veterans up to speed on job skills, including how to manage the process of looking for a job.
“What I’ve learned is that a lot of [veterans] haven’t had to do an interview. It’s just not something you need to do in the military. They don’t know how to ask questions, they don’t know how to answer tough questions, and in return they don’t have lots of confidence,” Worden says.
That lack of confidence is universal, according to Abrams, especially since asking for help is somewhat taboo in the military.
“It’s tough to ask for help in the military. You’re the person that is supposed to help others. That is the culture and the attitude, especially in the Marine Corps,” he says. “It’s very difficult to go to someone and say I need help because it shows vulnerability, when in reality it means you’re very strong.”
Though admittedly hard, according to Demezieux, getting over the fear of needing help can result in being a better student.
This article is paid for and produced in collaboration with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veteran service organizations and leading veteran champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the first installment in a series focusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.