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November 22, 2014

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Higher Education:

Emotional battlefield: Why college can be tough for military veterans

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Christopher DeVargas

Tashia Hargrove is an Air Force veteran who is pursuing a business administration degree at UNLV, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014.

She could hear the low-pitched whispering of a nearby classmate as her history professor lectured about John Locke and 17th century Britain.

The constant murmur threatened to distract her as she tried to focus on the professor. It worked on her patience, the lack of discipline and disrespect it showed. Still, she kept her calm.

This isn’t the military anymore, and Tashia Hargrove is no longer a staff sergeant.

Her days no longer started at 0500 hours at Travis Air Force Base in California, where she dressed in uniform every day and reported to her job at the base hospital handling logistics for medical contracts, supplies and equipment. A place where everyone had a mission and high-ranking superiors are called sir or ma’am.

She’s no longer in Afghanistan, where she worked for a year in a hospital where locals tried to steal metal objects to build bombs, and snipers could be anywhere outside the base. She once stayed up 24 hours straight dealing with rocket explosions that shook the ground like earthquakes.

Hargrove, 23, is a student now, one of nearly 1,400 former veterans, and veteran dependents transitioning to life as a civilian at UNLV. She is part of a rapidly growing population of veterans attending schools due to the government’s draw-down to reduce military size. UNLV’s veteran student enrollment has expanded nearly 500 students in two years.

Like many of those veterans, adjusting to the unstructured world of student life hasn’t been simple for Hargrove.

“In the military, it’s not just a job but a way of life,” Hargrove said. “Getting used to the civilian life that’s not so organized and structured all the time is (difficult).”

• • •

Inside UNLV’s Veteran Services Office is a map of the U.S. and the world covered with hundreds of multicolored pins.

Director Ross Bryant encourages every new veteran who steps into his office to mark where they served on the map. It’s a way of reminding the veterans that they aren’t alone. It can be easy for a veteran feel out of place among a sea of students five, 10, even 15 years younger.

“You have that brotherhood, even though I’ve never met you, we can talk about that,” Bryant said.

On the other wall he keeps a plaque bearing names of veterans who have graduated, grouped under different military branches. This is to inspire the current veteran students and show that while the road seems daunting, others have made it.

The privileges and pride of rank and military accomplishments are gone. Ex-military students can feel they’re lagging behind because other peers might be in the professional world already. They can also struggle with their newfound free time, getting lost in bad habits like partying, and can lose their bearings not being part of a larger team or mission, Bryant said.

“We’ve had veterans in deep struggle, and then we’ve had veterans who got here and they had their focus and their mission,” Bryant said. “They got great grades, they graduated and are living the American dream.”

Jeff Detrick, an Army veteran, said he didn’t talk to anyone but fellow veterans during his first six months on campus.

When a professor showed up 15 minutes late, it infuriated him because such tardiness wouldn’t be allowed in the military. He didn’t understand how anything was accomplished in the civilian life, due to the lack of rigid structure and discipline. There were times sitting in class when he felt he should be doing more.

Then Bryant encouraged Detrick to become active with the Student Veterans Organization, a club for veteran students.

“What’s helped me is being involved because working with Ross in the office, we’re involved in something that’s bigger than ourselves,” Detrick said.

UNLV and the Office of Veteran Services' goal is to help veterans find their place on campus. It offers unique services to help ease that transition. The university, which was named a “veteran friendly campus” by G.I. Jobs Magazine, provides in-state tuition and priority scheduling for veterans.

The office helps ensure veterans obtain their G.I. Bill money on time, and provides counseling, tutoring, suicide prevention services and job fairs. In addition, UNLV is one of 94 universities in the nation to have an on-campus Veteran Affairs liaison to help students through the bureaucratic slog to receive benefits.

Soon the campus will be one of 10 schools to have a peer-to-peer advisory and mentoring program for incoming veterans using a University of Michigan grant.

• • •

The community built out of these services has helped make Hargrove feel at home.

She didn’t know anyone when she arrived at UNLV. She decided to earn her business administration degree and then earn her social work degree to help fellow veterans.

Still, all she’d known for the past six years was her military life. She worried about how to succeed as a civilian because there was no structure like she had in the military. Meanwhile, no one in her classes knew she was in the military, and she also faced the same anxieties as some civilian students, like being intimidated by large lecture classes.

But from the moment she arrived on campus, a support system greeted her. Bryant helped her receive in-state tuition, while the VA liaison helped her obtain benefits. Detrick spent 20 minutes explaining to her the different resources on campus.

“I feel like having that group of people here has made my transition so much smoother,” Hargrove said. “I know I’m not alone.”

Now, she’s helping others feel at home. After wrapping up her lecture, Hargrove made her way across campus for her final appointment of the day — her peer-to-peer veteran advisory training.

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