IU student veterans help each other transition from military to academic life
Nov. 9, 2016
When Ted Britton came to IU Bloomington in summer 2016, he had six years of military service under his belt.
But the Lafayette native and father of two had never attended a university. After rising to sergeant in the Marine Corps, working in Hawaii, Japan and Korea, Britton found himself starting over.
Not quite sure where to begin, he turned to IU's Peer Advisors for Veteran Education program, a peer support program connecting incoming student veterans with student veterans on campus.
"It was a new area for me, and I didn't know anybody," he said. "I turned to the Veterans Service Office, which connected me with PAVE, and said 'I'm an adult, but I've never been to a university before and I don't know how this works. Can you help me?' And they did. They were fantastic."
On the IU Bloomington campus since 2015, PAVE began as a collaboration between the University of Michigan Depression Center and Department of Psychiatry and Student Veterans of America. Currently 42 universities host the program.
"Research has shown that the problems facing a student veteran aren't too different from those of a non-veteran," said Sgt. Nick Marsh, a combat medic in the Indiana Army National Guard and co-team leader of IU's PAVE program. "What is interesting about being a student veteran though is the shared military culture. Having a fellow veteran who can understand where you come from and what problems or frustrations you may have helps make that transition from service member to civilian a little easier."
For Britton, academic work was not completely new to him — he was a member of the military's Defense Language Institute, becoming a linguist for the military and obtaining an associate degree. But being a civilian on a college campus was a new experience.
A first-generation college student, Britton had attended one semester of junior college before joining the military, but he dropped out due to a lack of focus and any real support to pursue it further.
With a future wife and family on the horizon, Britton joined the Marines after meeting up with a childhood buddy back from boot camp.
After six years of service, some of which separated him from his growing family, Britton decided to leave the military and pursue a college education. Switching from being leader of his squad to sitting in class with 18- and 19-year-olds was a bit of a culture shock.
"Although I started at the bottom, toward the end of my military career I had people who relied on me to tell them what to do," he said. "That was six years in the making, and you finally feel like you've made it. Then you transition to school and I'm in a classroom with 19-year-olds. I've gone back to the beginning. Again."
Britton, who majoring in informatics, has taken his new journey in stride and leaned on his PAVE mentor, Marsh, to get over that hump.
"Nick and I talked about it and he said 'you've done it before. You've started at the bottom and climbed your way up. And you'll do it again.' It helped to have someone who's been on both sides — the military side and now the academic side."
Marsh, who is pursuing a master's degree in medical physics, joined the Indiana Army National Guard in 2010 and served two overseas deployments in Afghanistan, one of which happened during his time as an IU student.
Marsh turned to IU's Veterans Support Services for help and became a PAVE peer mentor in the spring of 2015, becoming co-leader of the group later that year. In his role, Marsh works to implement and manage programs for student veterans, train students to become mentors and serves as a mentor himself.
He said it's a privilege to meet the student veterans he works with and said PAVE mentors receive just as much back as the students they work with.
"The student receives the largest benefit due to the enrichment of their educational experience as well as by being paired with a mentor to advocate for their success," he said. "But the mentor also benefits by gaining problem-solving experience and by learning about campus resources, issues facing veterans and psychological first-aid principles."
Although starting over can be challenging, Britton also sees some advantages to being a more experienced student. He is more focused than he was as a freshly graduated high school senior and sometimes feels like his life experiences allow him to have a deeper understanding of the materials he is studying.
"It has it benefits and drawbacks," he said. "A lot of classes, everyone is almost a decade younger than me, and that can feel odd. But in other experiences I had a lot more to say and a larger background to draw from and to relate to the materials we are studying."
While he has made friends with people from all different backgrounds, he has enjoyed meeting fellow veterans like Marsh. His mentor encouraged him to join IU's Student Veterans of America chapter, which allows him to connect with other students with similar life experiences.
That has helped with both his transition to being a student and his transition from military life – where everyone is trained to have the same mindset and core values and where failing is not an option – to civilian life.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Britton said. "Because of my past military experience, I'm doing things that good students do – really focusing on my studies and holding myself accountable. I have a lot more confidence now, and I'm excited about the opportunities that lie ahead of me."
IU's Peer Advisors for Veteran Education program aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.