A Veteran’s Complicated Quest for a College
The Struggle of the Student Veteran
A 40 year old virgin ain’t got nothing on the struggles of an almost 40 year old student veteran! I am a self made woman, The Founder and Director of a non-profit called Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving. Yet I struggled deeply during my reintegration into the civilian culture. It’s a familiar veteran homecoming story. You know, the alcohol to sleep, the heroin to numb, the violence carved into my DNA consuming all my reactions, a short stay in the drunk tank before rehab to top of the self destruction.
Then, finally, I started utilizing the therapy techniques, created my new mission and followed my passions of poetry, performing and creating a community for veterans to reintegrate home. To truly come “home” we must find it from within, not through external forces. Take care of yourself before others. Selfless service translates to suicide in the civilian world. So I started facilitating workshops to embody the value of life, to empower everyone’s experiences and advocate for thriving in one’s own mind, body and soul, THEN help others the way we all wish we were treated when “coming home.” Especially if its 40 years after service.
Returning to College
After overcoming so much adversity I decided, with the encouragement of my husband, to return to college. The main reason was the hope that an added degree, a new piece of “piece of paper,” could help my organizations acquire more funds/grants and open up more accessibility to my programs for veterans and their families. Up until this point, I had stood proud WITHOUT an MFA, MBA or any other college degree acronym. I still stood tall but became open to the possibility of so much more. I wanted to learn. I wanted to know things others know, to meld the life experience with book knowledge. I wanted to continue to build the best version of myself.
I’m not going to rely on the classic tropes of the student veteran to tell the story of my return to school, but let’s cover them quick: Dumb 18-24 year olds with no life experience telling me what the war was really like or about. Professors that teach through their own politics rather than facts. Others putting veterans on the spot to speak about service or war. Difficulty with the VA, education benefits, finding someone in the college admissions office to who I could explain GI Bill and vocational rehab benefits. Those are only a few but a quick top annoyances. I think one disheartening factor in the struggle of being a returning student after service is often one of the reasons we served: to have the same opportunity for higher education as people who could afford it. “Economic Draft,” as I call it.
I had gone to college before I went into the military. I did not excel and ended up in the military to pay off my student loans. Which were not paid off until after years of battling the Army to fulfill the contract they promised me (that, my friends, is another story).
Without the GI Bill, but with my years in service, I was eligible to enroll in the Vocational Rehabilitation (VocRehab) program. After meeting with my VocRebab counselor, we discussed what kind of program would complement and improve my already extensive resume of skills and accomplishments. The counselor did his baseline of helping me navigate the complicated and layered questions of what degree program would be great for me. We decided on “Recreational Therapy” which at the time seemed like a good fit (as many things do). It was never explained to me that once this decision was made it would take an entire appeals process to change my program, or the lack of guarantee that a requested change would be accepted (again: another story currently without an ending).
College Application Process
Then the application process began and I applied out-of-pocket to Temple University which I was supposed to be reimbursed (except if you don’t get in). It did not even occur to me that they would not allow me in, especially with the “stamp of approval” from VocRehab counselor guy who snidely opined, “It’s a state school, you should have no problem getting in.” Did you know that Vocational Rehab counselors go to college specifically for that degree? I was really convinced that this guy knew his stuff and I often told him he was smart.
That’s the thing about having limited knowledge of the college system, including all the speed bumps vets face like the VocRehab counselor, the GI bill certifying official, the registrar people, the head of the continuing adult education department and the advisors: I didn’t even get the chance to speak with them all. How the hell are we, the veterans, supposed to know all these nuances and key players essential to a positive college experience? By that I mean a worthwhile time at a school that doesn’t force me to drop out within my first semester, or even before classes start, because of red tape.
Applying to Temple University and then transporting back in my mind to 1998 to hunt down the transcripts from all my previous college adventures was both exhausting and time consuming. But I did it! Then I wrote my essay about what I did between 2003-2019. Personally, I thought the essay was spot on, but I didn’t (and still don’t) really know what college acceptance people look for from a 39 year old combat veteran. I covered the struggles and the triumphs, the combat medic support for convoys in Iraq and the non-profit formation.
I was anxious to start the spring of 2019 but, of course, the transcript office did not receive one of my transcripts that was mailed in the antiquated system from my first school, Cedar Crest College. When I finally spoke to a human in the office at Temple University, they simply said it must have been delivered to the wrong room in the building and they had no way of finding it.
“So it’s my responsibility to make sure your postal service delivers your mail to the right room. How do I have control over that?” I asked.
No one could answer that question except to say, “You can send another one.”
I did, but not without contacting the veterans services office. After all the hassle and back-and-forth with the Temple transcript and admissions offices, I finally got a call back from the highly recommended fellow woman veteran in the veterans office, who I will leave unnamed. One: because I can’t remember her name, and Two: it was not a great or lasting impression.
“We received all your transcripts and you have not been accepted due to your GPA,” she informed me.
Let’s hold up a second: MY GPA FROM WHEN I WAS 18-22 YEARS OLD? THAT GPA? You are judging me for a GPA from essentially a different person! Why did I waste my time getting the transcripts and writing an essay that no one was going to consider in the admission process? Why did my VocRehab counselor say it would be easy to get into a state school like Temple?!
I felt degraded, dumb and questioned why I ever wanted to enter a system that does not want to nurture my life experience with book knowledge. The woman in the veterans office coldly acknowledged my disappointment and, without a word of encouragement or advice on what to do next, hung up the phone. The thing is, I have been at low points of my life with everyone around me expecting my continual failure before and, instead, I rose up. So I did it again.
Coming up With Plan B
I left about six messages for the VocRehab counselor, but by the time he finally returned my phone call the semester had started. I was devastated. His suggestion was a local community college. I didn’t know anything about community college except it wasn’t a state school and worried about the level of education I would receive. I wondered, “Is this where the cast-off’s of “real colleges” went when they couldn’t cut it?”
Based on the advice of a fellow veteran I decided to reach out to the director of returning adult and veteran services at my local community college, Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). I honestly wasn’t sure I would get a response.
I did! Leslie encouraged me to apply, to meet with her and talk about my organizations as a prospective student. She guided me through entering the “late start” classes on February 15th and introduced me to a great advisor, Mary. She and I discussed my goals, my aspirations, and why I wanted a degree that covered and complimented multiple fields I already worked in. The particularly wonderful thing about Mary was that “advising” was her sole job, unlike at other colleges where the advisors are professors as well. This allowed her the time to research my classes, fully evaluate my transcripts, listen to my goals and hopes and find the degree program that is perfect for me.
Great Advisors Make All the Difference
Mary did the job of my VocRehab counselor and college advisor in one and helped me discover the adventure of becoming a college student again. Another angel at LCCC was Diane, who handled all the veteran education benefits with an attention to detail and informative manner that a drill sergeant would be jealous of. If she didn’t know the answer, she would find it. She excelled at time sensitive material and always knew whenever payment would process. I quickly realized all these people worked hard to make sure returning adults, but specifically veterans, were supported while going back to college.
What I learned from this experience, and what I want to share with all student veterans and military members, is to reach out to the colleges and universities you are thinking of applying to. Think over your impressions of their staff. See who answers your emails and how quickly they reply. It is WORTH your time to do this kind of research. It may be the difference between staying in school and dropping out in frustration. Don’t let another system fail you, military members and veterans! Find the colleges and universities that don’t just fly flags and “thank you for your service,” but help you succeed in the rationally challenged world of academia.
About our Contributor:
Jenny Pacanowski is a poet/combat veteran/public speaker/workshop facilitator. She is the founder and director of Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving; a reintegration program for veterans that utilizes writing and performance to empower their experiences and provide daily skills to thrive! Jenny’s work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Turner Classic Movies, The Chew and Thriver Thursday with Robin Roberts from Good Morning America. Jenny’s unique style of poetry ignites the stage. She collaborates with multiple organizations and institutions that strive for awareness, advocacy and useful programs for veterans and their families.