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Culture shock: Five tips to help you acclimate to academia

Mar. 31, 2011 - 03:12AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 31, 2011 - 03:12AM  |  
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The other side

Mental health experts agree that education of veterans and educators is key to helping vets succeed on campus. While the sheer number of colleges and universities means change has been slow, positive examples abound in higher education. Read some here.

Michael Totty was ready to throw down.

The former Army National Guard combat medic was sitting with a fellow student veteran in a psychology class at Grand Canyon University in 2007, taking part in a short-term memory test.

Totty, 29, and his buddy knew they would do poorly on the exercise. Both men had struggled with short-term memory loss since receiving traumatic brain injuries in combat something their instructor knew about.

As individual student scores were revealed to the rest of the class, another classmate unaware of the TBI called out Totty's buddy for his low score.

"[He] said, ‘Are you f------ stupid?" Totty remembered, incredulously.

Totty, who also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, rose to his friend's defense.

"I told the guy, ‘You need to chill out. There are medical reasons that people can't remember things,'" he said. Then he turned up the heat: "I told him to sit down and shut up or to step outside and handle it."

The other student backed down, but Totty's instructor quickly cornered him after class.

"She said, ‘What if it [had gone to a physical level]?'" he recalled. "I told her that if somebody wants to fight, I'm not going to back down."

Then, Totty recalled, the instructor dug a little deeper, asking more questions. Finally, he told her matter-of-factly: "I'm not trained to injure people or maim people. I am trained to kill people."

Totty insists he didn't mean that he would have harmed the other student; he said he was trying to explain why he had not allowed himself to get physical with the student in the first place, right in the classroom.

But those ill-timed words earned Totty some unwanted time off from school. Before he could return, Grand Canyon University required him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and present a letter from the doctor to the school saying he was not a danger to himself or anyone else.

Citing privacy concerns under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, William Jenkins, a GCU spokesman, would not comment specifically on the situation except to say that it had nothing to do with Totty's military status. The school has a policy to require a mental health check for any student on campus or online who makes threatening remarks to a faculty member, staff or student, or threatens actions against themselves, he said.

Totty complied, but he missed three days of classes as a result of the incident and was left with a sour taste in his mouth for the school, which he feels offered him no support or understanding.

That feeling of being misunderstood is familiar to many combat veterans who have struggled to integrate into the college environment.

Physical and mental injuries pose huge challenges for many. Traumatic brain injuries hurt their ability to navigate the registration process and remember assignments. Musculoskeletal problems may make it difficult to sit in a lecture hall for long periods. Post-traumatic stress disorder causes hypervigilance, making some uneasy about being in crowds and unable to focus.

But even veterans who don't have health problems struggle to adjust. Their experiences, so different from those of the typical 18-year-old high school graduate, set them apart from other students, which can lead to friction. And many of the behaviors that served them well in the combat zone work against them in the classroom.

Michael J. Hall has seen it all too often. A neuropsychologist at the Iowa City VA Medical Center and a professor at the University of Iowa, Hall observed veteran after veteran start school, get discouraged and drop out. It moved him to partner with Tamara Woods, a doctoral student in UI's counseling psychology program, to create a class for veterans about post-deployment life.

The challenges for both combat veterans and their schools are big but not insurmountable, Hall said. The key is teaching both veterans and educators about combat's effect on a service member's physical, mental and academic well-being.

More schools are doing so, training faculty and staff and developing veteran-specific courses like Hall's.

If your school has any programs along those lines, take advantage of them. If not, consider these five suggestions from the experts to help you or a friend navigate this new challenge.

Open up

Student veterans often don't like to draw attention to themselves, said Peter Schmidt, a psychologist and educator with the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. While they will participate in class activities and assignments, they are far less inclined to share personal information about combat or military experiences.

On top of that, many veterans feel misunderstood by their more "traditional" fellow students, and fear that opening up may further alienate them.

Becoming comfortable enough to open up takes time, Schmidt said. Follow your own pace, but seek to establish a trusting relationship with a faculty member or fellow student. "As with anyone, if a person can ... listen without judgment and interrupting the story, then this will begin to open doors of self-disclosure," he said.

Talk like a student, not a warrior

There are good ways to open up, and not-so-good ways to open up.

Totty's comment to his psychology instructor about being "trained to kill" is a good example. "In the military, you can talk like that," Schmidt said. But in a higher-education setting, that language is jarring.

Just as you had to learn military culture when you entered service, you will have to learn academic culture. The former probably took some time; the latter might, too. If your school doesn't have a specific program to help you acclimate, seek out other veteran students, or perhaps a veteran on the faculty or staff, Schmidt said.

Avoid split-second decision-making

In a war zone, the ability to make split-second decisions can keep you alive. Conversely, Schmidt said, "Higher education values process, dialogue and independent thinking through reflection and interaction."

Again, change won't come overnight. As you acclimate to the pace and process of higher education, it will help to know some relaxation techniques, Schmidt said. Something as simple as taking a deep breath or doing a few quick shoulder rolls can go a long way toward helping you calm down and slow down.

Understand and redirect anger

In the war zone, anger and adrenaline can be useful for fueling action and sudden response, Schmidt said. But, as Totty found out, on-campus anger can have very negative consequences.

College classrooms can be minefields for irritation. You might get annoyed with students for being disrespectful or immature texting during a professor's lecture, for example, or whining about due dates for assignments. Or you may become angry if a professor criticizes the wars or the military.

"What can best redirect the anger is a frank conversation with a trusted faculty member or other hardworking, conscientious students about the frustration," Schmidt said.

Also, become aware of your triggers, so you can avoid them or better manage them.

Finally, identify what might be fueling your anger. "Anger is typically a defensive emotion protecting what is below the surface," Schmidt said. Perhaps your anger is being fueled by fear, rejection or jealous in certain situations. Here, too, relaxation techniques can go a long way.

Don't take the bait

And there will almost always be bait, from both fellow students and faculty members.

An instructor at one Washington school that Schmidt visited, for example, has anti-war signs on his classroom wall signs that have nothing to do with his course.

Academic freedom gives some instructors the sense that they can say whatever they want to say, said Thomas Schumacher, PTSD program director for the Washington state DVA.

"There is a certain amount of baiting going on," he said. "We really try to train professors to suspend some of the rhetoric."

While there is no perfect formula for responding to a classmate or professor who says something upsetting, ignoring the rhetoric can go a long way toward ensuring a less tumultuous academic experience. And the grapevine is a powerful tool for most veterans on campus, Schumacher said. Listen for talk of professors known for anti-war rhetoric, and try to avoid their courses.

Of course, schools have a responsibility to make an effort as much as veterans [see sidebar], and not all colleges are created equal when it comes to support for veterans.

Veterans advocates fear that student veterans with experiences like Totty's may throw in the towel and quit college altogether. Fortunately, Totty's story had a happier ending. He is currently pursuing an associate degree in computer information from Glendale Community College in Arizona, and said he feels the support of the school's veterans services staff at every turn.

"One of the veterans reps here said that, to her, it's not about the job it's about the fact that she gets to help people who protected her freedom," he said. "To me, that's a big deal."

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