After returning from military service, many veterans at Westminster College are facing new challenges—struggling with culture shock and finding their identities as civilians and as students.
At 24-years-old, first-year student Shay Harris is six years older than most of her peers at Westminster College. Like many other non-traditional students at Westminster, she is a veteran.
Harris graduated high school and left for basic training in 2012. Soon afterward, she deployed to Kandahar, a southeastern province in Afghanistan. From there, Harris was stationed in Savannah, Georgia and finished her four years in the military in Seoul, South Korea.
Harris returned to the United States from Seoul on July 26. Not even a month later, she started school at Westminster, where she is majoring in business management.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard going back to school, but it is very hard,” Harris said. “I don’t know why I’m struggling with finding my identity. I just feel like I was in one culture and now I’m in a totally different one.”
Early in the Fall semester on a hot summer day, the topic of a class conversation changed to First Amendment laws. One of the questions at hand was whether it should be illegal to burn the American flag.
The American flag means something different to everyone, but Harris said its meaning tends to carry more weight for veterans.
Harris said the thought of burning the American flag was intolerable after she’d fought to protect the flag and all it represents. How could someone burn the flag she wore proudly on her uniform?
“I fought to protect this flag and now people want to just go burn it,” Harris said to the class.
Harris said the Westminster culture of liberal thinking and young, idealistic minds was a far cry from the military base she had called home 30 days earlier.
“In the military, you just do what you are told,” Harris said. “You just deal with it. Just having the option to speak my mind in class is difficult to do.”
In 2012, 945,052 students were attending college under the GI bill, according to data from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I think the transition can be awkward,” said Sylvia O’Hara, the director of veterans and military services at Westminster. “There are very few places that mimic military culture.”
This lies at the heart of the issue for Harris and other veterans.
People in the military gain a reputation for being robotic and sharing a common mindset of doing whatever it takes to accomplish the task at hand, O’Hara said. Because of this, O’Hara said student veterans tend to have an uncanny work ethic.
“Student veterans are more driven to get the job done,” she said. “They feel like they are older and being left behind.”
O’Hara said if student veterans struggle in class, it’s likely because they tend to be non-traditional students rather than because of a lack of work ethic.
“The army was just go, go, go,” said Jesse Cervantes, a 23-year-old student veteran at Westminster. “[College] is so relaxed and slow paced.”
Cervantes said he had an easier time than most adjusting to civilian life. However, Cervantes, O’Hara and Harris all said the military is a big piece of their personal identities.
“[My deployment] was right out of my development stages of life,” Harris said. “It was right out of high school. Being in the military made me feel special. Now I don't have that. Now I’m trying to figure out what it is—who I am.”
Cervantes, O’Hara and Harris all joined the military straight out of high school, taking on a new identity that shaped them for the entirety of their service and civilian lives.
O’Hara was a senior in high school on 9/11 and joined the Utah Army National Guard straight after graduation in 2002, where she served for six years as a military technician and attended the University of Utah.
For O’Hara, the feeling of identity crisis became clear when she first went to the veterans service desk at the University of Utah.
No one was at the desk, so O’Hara rang the bell. The worker approached her and dismissively said, “This desk is for veterans.” O’Hara said it was clear the worker assumed she wasn’t a veteran because she’s a woman.
“That happened twice,” O’Hara said. “There are a lot of intersectionalities in the military. If you are a part of a group that is underrepresented, it can make your college experience more difficult.”
O’Hara said the biases and stereotypes that come from students’ lack of exposure with veterans can make it hard for veterans to find a friend base once they leave the military. This, along with culture shock, is something Harris said she has been struggling with at Westminster.
“Students are intimidated to talk to me because I’m a veteran,” she said.
However, Harris said this is only half the problem.
“I think I avoid having conversations with people because I don’t want to explain my whole life,” she said. “In the military, you are forced to make friends. You are always around people. Living with them. Working with them. Here, I have to force myself to talk to other people.”
However, Harris said she doesn’t think this issue will persist throughout her college career.
“It took four years to become who I was,” she said. “In four years when I’m graduating, I should be someone new.”
O’Hara said the transition from military service to student will always be awkward.
“The civilian world is very passive aggressive for veterans,” O’Hara said.
However, she said Westminster is actively working to ease the transition from military service to student through systems like the veterans center.
“The veterans center is great,” Harris said. “I can go there every day and meet people and get my homework done.”
Westminster’s structure also allows for an easier transition, according to O’Hara and Harris. The smaller class sizes and personal relationships with professors allow for a close community that other schools can’t offer and helps Westminster student veterans reach their goals, Harris said.
“I have a lot of students with positive experiences here,” O’Hara said. “There is a structure in place that allows it to happen. That doesn't happen at other places.”
Simply understanding the challenges student veterans face can help as well, O’Hara said.
“The most damaging thing that can be done is if a veteran tells you their story and you don't care or listen,” she said.