Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Imagine serving in the U.S. military, with all its difficulties, dangers and demands. Now imagine, after training your mind, body and soul to respond in one way, having to dismantle that life of weapons and strife for one filled with books and younger peers.
Benz Armstrong, an eight-year Army veteran from Pearl, Mississippi, remembers the transition and the difficulties she faced switching to student life at the University of Baltimore.
“While I was utilizing the post-9/11 G.I. Bill at the University of Baltimore, it was very hard for me because even though I stepped out of the uniform, military culture is still instilled in me, even to this day,” said Armstrong, who recently was named Towson University’s director of the Military and Veterans Center.
“It is something that veterans have at their core inside and out,” she explained. “The transition can be made, I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it can be done.”
The Student Veterans of America estimates there are more than 500,000 student veterans. Each has unique stories to tell about the military lifestyle and how it is based on routine and muscle memory, as well as repeating many of the same concepts over and over again until it is ingrained in the service member’s mind. Veteran’s face many hurdles during the transition to civilian life that can trip up anyone.
Armstrong still remembers her first day of college life: “We had orientation to welcome us to the university. I didn’t have any navigation, in terms of the environment. I didn’t know where to go. There was no sense of direction to guide you from point A to point B. There wasn’t a battle buddy to help guide me. It was just me, the civilian student.”
And so at Towson, Armstrong wasted no time when she took the Veteran Center director position in May to begin implementing sure-fire ways to smooth the transition from the battlefield to the classroom. One of the first items on her list was to make certain that the more than 360 self-identified military affiliated students felt welcomed and had a safe environment to hang out in while not in classes.The mundane changes to the center included completing a new paint job, upgrading appliances and adding new furniture. Armstrong said the center is outgrowing its current space so they are looking to expand in the near future.
Veterans are typically older than other students; roughly 85 percent of veterans and active duty service members are 24 years old or older. Nearly half of veteran students have families: 47 percent have a spouse and another 47 percent have children. Despite only making up 10 to 12 percent of military personnel, women make up 27 percent of veterans enrolled in post-secondary education.
Armstrong said her mission is to create an enhanced learning environment by providing veteran and military-connected students with support and resources in a military-friendly atmosphere. She works to address the unique issues and challenges that military and veteran students face when entering into the environment.
The center staff also assists students with information regarding the G.I. bill, Veteran Affairs services, financial aid and provide step-by-step instructions through the university application and enrollment process. In addition, there is a mentorship program to help bridge the gap with traditional students who are interested in learning more about military lifestyle, or thinking about possibly joining one of the branches of services.
Veterans who struggle with the transition give a variety of reasons for their difficulty.
Christopher Powell said he felt as if his professors didn’t understand his needs when he attended classes at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“Many of my professors treated me as if I was a 19-year-old kid who didn’t take his education seriously, when in all actuality I am a highly trained, disciplined soldier capable of completing any task with a level of professionalism and clarity,” Powell said proudly.
Powell stressed that being comfortable with peers allows you the ability to ask questions without worrying about what people think.
For other veterans, the difficulty is mainly learning to relax after daily living in high stressed environments where not being focused or disciplined could result in someone losing his or her life. And then, many veterans enjoy being around like-minded individuals and attribute this as a key to their success in making the transition back into the civilian lifestyle.Having like-minded peers was key for Armstrong as well.
“At first communication was so hard because not having like-minded people to hang around was a struggle,” said Armstrong, again remembering her early transition period.
“There were many times I thought about quitting because I didn’t think anybody understood me, especially when it came to working in small groups. Many of the traditional students were lackadaisical in their studying routines and habits.”
Just as Armstrong said she didn’t quit and pushed through, her goal now is to help other transitioning military-affiliated students to do the same. She said her survival strategy was to adapt and overcome the obstacles that were in front of her as she did during her time as a military police officer. Other soldiers can find their unique ways to survive, and Armstrong said she is there to help.