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The Student Experience: Integration

Integrating with “normal” society is one of the most common issues I hear from veterans getting out of the military to go back to school or join the workforce.   “Civilians don’t know the meaning of real work,” or, “They haven’t been through what I’ve been through,” are popular refrains amongst veterans. You can argue for or against these points, though I tend to lean towards the against side of the fence.

As a student at Syracuse University and someone who constantly interacts with people outside of the military, I firmly believe you can’t lump civilians into a category of lazy softies. I’ve meet students here who have experienced hardships comparable to the things I’ve seen in the military. I’ve also seen plenty of civilians who work harder than military folk I’ve had the displeasure of working with. If you think about it, it’s almost impossible to fire a servicemember. I’d have commit a major offense to be ejected with any degree of efficiency and any lesser offense would be met with non-judicial punishment as opposed to termination. I would still collect a paycheck; have a roof over my head; clothes to wear (though not very fashionable ones); and food to eat. Joe Schmoe secretary can be fired for playing on his phone too much at work and he’s on his own to find the next job.

I’m not railing against veterans. I’m still active duty and I don’t know what it’s like to be in the hunt for a job. I am quite aware that I have to make a conscious decision to leave the military, however, and that there are many resources to aid in transition as well. This same decision applies to how we decide to conduct ourselves when trying to integrate back into civilian life.

Why do I mention this? I was recently asked by a student at SU to be the subject for an interview. There is apparently a movement on campus to encourage veterans and students to meet up and hang out together. The interviewer explained that some veterans feel like the student population shuns them.

Do these veterans wear their boots and UTs to class? Do they have nametags that declare them as veterans of foreign wars? I have yet to see an old man strolling around campus, books in hand, emblazoned with a USMC or similar hat bedecked with pins of the medals he earned. In fact, without some obvious sign, it is very difficult to tell if a student has served in the military or not. So what distinguishes these veteran college students from the others so much to the point where they feel they are being ostracized? If I had to make an educated guess, I would say it’s their attitude.

I have plenty of civilian friends, many college students here at SU, and none of them seem the slightest bit put off by my service in the military. I reach out and make connections with them and try to nurture those connections. I adapt to the situation I’m put into instead of rescinding into a shell where I feel like no one understands me and that people should just want to come up and make fast friends with me because I served my country.

And civilians are busy. Most of them are trying to survive in an extremely competitive environment where the more hard work they put into their professions, the more money they will be paid. A lot of these jobs may even have little to no job security and they can be fired at a moments notice, plunging them farther into debt that their outrageous student loans placed them in. When I look back at my ten years of military service, I can name many mentors and great leaders I’ve met that have inspired me to achieve the level of proficiency I have at my job and also taught me how to lead. There are many peers I’ve had the pleasure to serve alongside that also inspired me to work harder, to want to be a part of the team. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of working with others that that drag everyone down with poor leadership and still get paid the same amount, sometimes more, than I do. They have those in the civilian world, too. In successful companies, they call them “unemployable.”

As a population, the onus is on us to use our military training to adapt to our situations and thrive. Active duty servicemembers and veterans have to make a conscious decision to reach out and create bonds with these weird, alien civilian people that we’ll be constantly surrounded by.

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