Paul Szoldra, a former Marine sergeant and founder of advising website CollegeVeteran.com, hears one inquiry time and again from service members: What's it like to go to college after serving in the military?
"For someone in the military that's so used to other military people being around them, and then dealing with people who are four years or eight years younger than you—it's definitely a change, and it can be a scary one," says the 28-year-old, who's currently studying at the University of Tampa.
And it's not just a new set of peers to grapple with, he says; adapting from getting hands-on, in-the-moment training to completing reading assignments, written essays, and final exams can serve as a mental roadblock, too.
[Read about challenges veterans face in college.]
"Some military members think that they just can't deal with the pressure of going to class and taking tests and stuff like that, and I think that's totally wrong and needs to be flipped on its head," he says. "Being in the military gives you so much more insight to dealing with stress and being able to solve complex problems. We're more successful [in college] because we're much more mature."
Here's what Szoldra, the creator of a Change.org petition for rankings of schools that are best for veterans, says he's learned in college, as well as his advice for other former service members enrolling in school.
1. Prepare for a transition: Assuming control of his college path was an initial challenge for Szoldra, who'd been accustomed to following a regimented schedule. In the service, "There's going to be somebody higher ranked than you who's going to tell you where you need to be that day," he explains. "You come to college and you're a management major; you need to register for classes. Me being military, I think, 'What classes do I need to take? You don't [schedule] it for me?'"
He is also now in charge of his studying and test preparation—which initially seemed "just like a foreign land" after years of learning through simulation and hands-on training. While that can be tough, it isn't an impossible transition, he notes.
2. Be open to a new mindset: "When I first came on campus, I was very stand-offish. I was thinking to myself that anything an 18-year-old said in class was the stupidest statement I've ever heard in my life. I kept to myself, and if there was something said about the military or foreign policy or whatever, I was always the one to chime in and say, 'You're stupid and you're wrong,'" he says.
"Now, I'm definitely more open to hearing different opinions and more sides to the story. I definitely haven't changed as far as what my views are, but I'll at least hear others out."
Szoldra credits his evolving mindset to daily interaction with new people, differing opinions, and backgrounds unlike his own. "Just hearing what others think and what others feel," he says, "is definitely something that has shaped me and pushed me to where I am now."
3. Seek out other veterans: Going to a college with a vibrant program for veterans can help students to realize that they aren't facing challenges alone. "It's definitely a good thing to meet other people who are going through the same situation as you," he says. If your school offers veteran-specific orientations or classes, as Szoldra's college, the University of Tampa, does, they can serve as quick ways to connect with peers from similar backgrounds.
4. Hang out with civilians: While a peer group of simultaneously-transitioning veterans is key, it's also important to broaden your horizons and actually get to know the civilians you sit alongside in class, Szoldra says. "Do things on campus outside of the little veterans' sphere," he recommends, such as joining fraternities and sororities that can create a brotherhood or sisterhood.
[Find out how to get involved in college.]
5. Strongly consider traditional college: All these interactions will likely be easier and more common for students who go to school on a physical campus. While earning a degree online may make the most sense for some students for financial or family reasons, consider enrolling in a traditional school if you can, Szoldra recommends.