An interview: transitioning from service to college

November 9, 2021

Olga Knezevic

What were the hardest obstacles to readjusting to day-to-day life upon your return from active duty?

I went from living a life where most decisions were made for me—where I lived and worked with the same 20 guys whom I could trust with almost anything—to a college classroom. Having been in Iraq just days prior to getting out also meant I moved from an environment of extremely high intensity to no intensity in a weekend. It was a total shock. Though it felt amazing at first, the harder transition was about 6 weeks in, when the lack of stress caused my body to overproduce adrenaline so I could achieve my hypervigilant “normal.”

Were you able to access all the services– medical care, job assistance, and financial aid– that you needed?

I was, but some of that took a lot of time. Financial aid came quickly. I filled out a few forms, and the school took care of the rest. In terms of job assistance, the only suggested jobs based on my experience were in private security or the police force, which I wasn’t interested in. I could have signed up for medical care sooner, but I only did so once I began pursuing my disability claim, which took years to finalize.

Was it easy to access veteran education benefits?

Yes, that was very easy. All I had to do was go to the financial aid office at school.

You went to community college first, how was that?

I went back to Kilgore College right after I got out. I had attended it in high school. It was a good hybrid college where about 80% of the students commute and 20% live on campus. I think it was an easier transition because of the high percentage of non-traditional students. I later attended Austin Community College. That had the benefit of a higher veteran population and some integration with the University of Texas veteran community. The downside of student life was that there were many more younger students who I could not relate to at all, and the veteran community was spread out over numerous campuses and a larger population area.

You eventually transferred to university. How was that change?

I went to Texas State University. That was a different experience because of my life situation and my majors. I was married with a baby and commuted about an hour both ways for school. I also only went to school 2 or 3 days a week. Also, my English major classmates were younger: I was closer to my professors in age and related to them much more. The philosophy program I later switched to was a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, so the average age was much higher. Those courses were more mature in material, so the discussions were engaging. I didn’t feel like the old man in the room anymore.

Did you join any veterans’ groups at college?

No, when I was at community college, I was more engaged with my college ministry, as were almost half the veterans going to UT and ACC. When I got to university, I already had my friend and veteran networks from Austin. The hour-long commute and only being in San Marcos 2-3 days a week, meant that there wasn’t really time to build relationships.

Was it difficult to find the kind of employment you were looking for after college?

Yes, it was. I searched for over a year for something in content or copywriting but wasn’t hired. Part of the issue may have been that I was asking for a relatively high starting salary without much relevant work experience. They could hire someone younger for a lower salary. Another part was that most of my work experience was more applicable in other industries. Although I had years of experience leading people and managing expensive equipment and materials, I was applying for starting positions and not management roles.

Did you feel employers understood the kind of skills and experience you had gained in the military?

Very much the opposite. It takes a lot of creative rewording of a job description to make my military experience seem even remotely applicable to civilian businesses. How can you phrase “I was a squad leader with 15 men beneath me, doing convoy security operations in Anbar Province from November 8 to September 9” in a way that a civilian would understand? They don’t understand the scope of leadership involved in leading 15 people in a combat zone, spending almost 24 hours a day with these guys, managing basically all elements of their lives, personal and professional. Also, being responsible for the use and maintenance of tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment. The fact that we were “on the job” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the better part of each year. The fact that we were technically middle managers and had more authority than most C-level managers do. It’s impossible to translate.

Is there any type of support in terms of education and employment that you found was missing?

One of the problems that veterans face when using education benefits is the restrictions placed on them when signing up for classes. They only receive the benefit for classes that apply to their major. If counselors at schools had more knowledge of these restrictions to help veteran students plan their studies, it would help them build better schedules and graduate faster. When it comes to employment benefits (outside of using state or VA assistance for writing resumes), coaching vets on how to translate their work experience in the military into terms a civilian can understand would be extremely useful.

Any final thoughts about your experience of being a student-veteran or advice to current student-veterans?

My advice is to network with veterans in your community, whether that be near your home, in your school, or some other organization, like a church. Find both younger and older vets, to do what the DoD and VA don’t do. The older vets have transitioned and you can learn from their experience. The younger ones are going through it with you and can be your support when things get difficult.

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