Help veterans transition into life at SDSU

by Joe Stewart

Artwork Courtesy of Staff Artist Melodie Lapot
Artwork Courtesy of Staff Artist Melodie Lapot

When we hear the word “diversity,” we think of different creeds, colors, ages and physical abilities. We often think of diversity as something easily recognizable. Yet, there is a minority group that is not easily distinguished. It is comprised of all creeds, colors, ages and backgrounds, and known as the veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

As of 2009, college-age veterans (35 and younger) made up only half of 1 percent of the American population.

However, nearly 1,000 student veterans are currently pursuing degrees at San Diego State. SDSU’s appeal to veterans and active-duty military looking for a college education has increased dramatically because of the support of the school administration and community. With so many students already at SDSU and many more anticipated to arrive, it’s important to explore this subculture and bridge the gap between veterans and the rest of the student body.

There is a common misconception that if someone is a veteran, it inherently means they have been to war. In fact, only 8.7 percent of service members get deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. So of the 1.7 million Americans who are veterans 35 years old or younger, less than one-tenth of them have served in combat.

Regardless of where the individual served, the military is still a culture entirely of its own and a transition to college can be difficult. When I came to SDSU a full year and a half after leaving the Marine Corps, it was still a shock to my system.

While the military develops many positive character traits that give veterans an edge in the classroom, such as discipline, respect, a sense of responsibility and time management, creating a social life is a slower and more difficult process.

Paul Contreras, a veteran of the Navy and vice president of community service for the Student Veteran Organization said, “When I got to State, I wanted to get to know people, but it’s tough to fit in. The difference in age and mentality level made me wonder if I was just the creepy old guy.”

Veterans tend to be a few years older than most students. Many veterans have families and very few live on campus. Combine that with transitioning from a strictly structured, tight-knit unit into a community that is recognizably individualistic, and you often find disconnect.

By the end of my first semester at SDSU, I had become friends with zero students, but I made friends with all of my professors. I felt like I had absolutely no way to relate to students. I remember a communication class where I was older than the TA. She thought it was funny, but the emotion I felt fell between sadness and anger.

Then I found out about a place called the SDSU Veterans’ House, located at the end of Frat Row. It became my refuge on campus. The Veterans House is provided to veterans by the university as a gathering place with the intention of promoting camaraderie, socialization and a reason to spend more time on campus.

As new veterans meet other veterans who have been on campus for awhile, they become more comfortable with getting involved. Several veterans are now members of fraternities, social clubs, sports teams and student government.

Nicholas Keith, a Marine Corps veteran who recently transferred to Chico State, joined a fraternity while at SDSU.

“It was a complete removal from my comfort zone. As important as it is to remember my time in the Corps, I have to eventually become a part of this new community,” he said.

There is a lot to be gained from building relationships between students and veterans. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet veterans on campus. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Building new friendships helps veterans downshift from the intensity and responsibility of military service.

We all desire a sense of ownership within our college experience. When I first came to SDSU, I was just a guy going to college. In the past year, I’ve come to proudly call myself an Aztec.

It is my sincere hope that with the awareness and kindness of my fellow Aztecs, my comrades of the Armed Forces who are now beginning their scholastic careers will come to feel the same.

—Joe Stewart is a journalism senior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.