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Top 5 tips for veterans returning to civilian life and education

by Monica Smith

Nov 10, 2020, 12:00 PM.

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How to improvise, adapt and overcome the transition as a student.

There are unique challenges that make a return to civilian life somewhat difficult for those in the military. From understanding the nature of processes for veterans and their benefits to how to dress for work, the consensus among veterans is that there is a readjustment period. Many will consider advancing their education, however, that route can be daunting without the support of resources and a military-friendly institution.

Recognized as a 2020 Top School for Veterans by U.S. Veterans Magazine, FIU has consistently been listed as a top-ranked university for veterans by U.S. News & World Report. The university also holds a ranking as a 2020-2021 Military College of Distinction and it is one of the few universities in Florida to feature a dedicated Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (VMA). In addition to what the VMA provides, here are five tips that may help support veterans.

1. Consider online learning

Matthew DeBord
Matthew DeBord

Matthew DeBord, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2002 to 2014, is pursuing a double major—a bachelor’s degree in accounting with a minor in business analytics and a second bachelor’s degree in religious studies. Stationed all over the U.S. and overseas, DeBord settled in Florida to be close to family. Soon after being discharged, he realized that securing the kind of job he wanted would be challenging without a degree, so he applied, tapped into his benefits and enrolled.

Today, DeBord works in FIU’s VMA and he “pays it forward,” helping veterans with his firsthand knowledge to make things easier. What’s helped him, he says, is all of the resources available, staying disciplined with coursework and online learning.

“The most attractive part about online learning is that most courses allow you to work ahead and there is no scheduled class time. I am a family man and it makes it easier as I can do coursework whenever I have time in the day, to meet my deadlines. This gives me more time with my now 3-month-old son,” reasons DeBord.

2. Explore all GI Bill benefits

Amber Webber
Amber Webber

The needs of veterans are unique, says Amber Webber, FIU Online instructional design manager. A veteran and professor of online courses, Webber earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees fully online, so she completely understands the veteran experience. Webber served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2008.

“Adapting to civilian life can be difficult, reach out to your civilian network, grow your connections and consider advancing your education,” she says. “Make the most of your GI Bill as it can pay you for more than just higher education. If you’re not aware of something, keep asking questions.”

Sometimes the first person doesn’t know the complete answer, Webber explains, and you have to dig a little deeper, so you don’t miss out.

3. Use the Disability Resource Center

Jennifer Puentes
Jennifer Puentes

Jennifer Puentes ’19 feels the same about the flexibility afforded to students with online learning. Puentes is currently pursuing her master’s degree in international and intercultural education and she also works within the VMA.

From 2009 to 2013, Puentes served in the U.S. Navy. As a veteran, she’s found that the greatest resource beyond the VMA is FIU’s Disability Resource Center. The center helps with accommodations for classes. It can also act as a liaison on behalf of students with professors.

“FIU means opportunity and it means growth. I’ve been able to meet amazing people who have helped me achieve my education and career goals. I have also received lots of support adapting to an academic setting,” says Puentes.

4. Lean on friends

Three days after leaving active duty, Webber interviewed for her first civilian job as a veteran. Her entire wardrobe was jeans, t-shirts and casual wear, she laughs and recalls how she asked her friends to help her build a work wardrobe and practice interviewing with non-military folks. 

Both DeBord and Puentes agree that part of their success with being a student is their connections with others who have served, so they both suggest that students, especially if they are online, find a club either on or off campus.

5. Keep copies of your DD-214

Realize that being a veteran, no matter where you go, makes you a special case, says Webber.

“Make lots of extra copies of your DD-214—you’ll need it for everything from a store discount to applying for benefits, jobs, and for veteran preference for things such as renting housing or school placement for children,” she offers.

While there really are so many tips for every situation, stick to your military service core values, adds Webber, which include duty, ethics, honor, courage, commitment, respect and excellence to name a few.

DeBord stresses that it is normal to feel isolated, but there are other veterans going back to school—you’re not alone.

Puentes’ best advice is not to be afraid to “take a break” because there will be time ahead to do what you need to, and people will be there to help you.

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