An ‘Army of One’ No Longer: How Two Veterans Made The Transition From Soldier To Student
When Thomas Ortiz re-enlisted in the military in 2013, he was stationed in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“That was never boring,” Ortiz laughed.
He had made the choice for his niece, who has both Korean and Mexican heritage.
“When I was joining the army, I knew that I was gonna go to Korea at some point to learn the culture and the language for her,” Ortiz said.
His time in Korea would later earn him advanced placement in a Korean language class at UCLA. After starting his higher education at East Los Angeles City College in 2017, he transferred to the UC and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in Asian languages. Now, he’s earning his masters in Social Work at Cal State LA.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
Ortiz was emancipated from his parents at the age of 16. Not long after, he decided to enlist in the military. When I asked why, he answered with three words: education, patriotism, and money. He also mentioned the sharpness of the uniforms, and the mentors he might find who would motivate him to pursue something meaningful.
“Coming from, quote unquote, the hood, and not really having any role models that could motivate me to pursue higher education or to pursue something outside of deviant behavior ... I saw it as a shortcut to success because of the financial gains,” Ortiz said. “Everything was a bonus for me upon coming out of the military, like, oh, you get the G.I. Bill.”
The G.I. Bill provides a long list of educational benefits for U.S. service members. Passed near the end of World War II, it has been extended into a range of options, some of which cover college tuition for up to 36 months, as well as housing and book stipends. A veteran can access benefits by enrolling with Veterans Affairs.
When service members are leaving the military, they enter the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. TAP is a five-day program that provides presentations for veterans on their educational and career development benefits. The efficacy of TAP programs, however, can vary across branches.
Carol Calandra, the director of the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, added that during TAP, many veterans are not in the best mindset to absorb such extensive and critical information.
For example: Veterans now often choose between two extensions of the G.I. Bill, the Montgomery G.I. Bill and the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. Which version best suits a veteran’s academic plans depends on their course schedule, and whether they hope to transfer benefits to family members.
“They’re five days from seeing their kids. They’re five days from freedom,” Calandra said. “We would get these groups of veterans that sat through those five days of PowerPoint hell, and still had no clue.”
Ortiz stressed how lucky he was to have the advice of a friend when beginning his higher education journey. The friend had left the army years before him, and had already navigated the difficult transition out of service.
“She helped me enroll in the VA and have access to all my benefits. Upon enrolling with the VA, I was able to go to [East L.A. City College] and the Veterans Resource Center and then access my G.I. Bill benefits there,” Ortiz said. “I was able to just enroll and start getting my money for going to school.”
But for Ortiz and many other veterans, navigating benefits, picking a college, and enrolling in classes is only half the battle of earning a degree.
From Service Member To Student
For many student veterans, connecting with their non-veteran peers can feel impossible.
Ortiz added that many student veterans struggle to socialize. They sometimes label themselves as “civilian children,” citing years of unfamiliarity with normal life. And chatter of worry surrounding academic deadlines might feel meaningless in comparison with the high pressure, often traumatic environments they endured in service.
Itzel Barakat is one student veteran who witnessed subtle divides between her veteran peers and other classmates. Barakat served in the U.S. Air Force from 2004-09, and is now earning a degree in psychology at Cal State L.A.
“There’s a presence about us that can seem threatening. It’s supported by the stereotype that [being a] veteran must mean you have PTSD. But you know, generally speaking for me, I tone it way down,” Barakat said.
Barakat noticed that over time, these stereotypes caused some of her veteran peers to change the settings in which they were forthcoming about their veteran identity.
“I’m a student. If it comes up in conversation, and if it's applicable to the topic, then I'm a student veteran,” she said. “Versus … I'm a veteran that just got out of the military. You know, it’s my first semester at City College — veteran leading the identity first.”
But for Barakat, it wasn’t necessarily her identity as a veteran that made the transition into college life difficult. And in many ways, her identity as a student is what helped her feel stability after reintegrating into civilian society.
“I'm transitioning from service member to student, I was just trying to figure out my life," Barakat said. "The ‘student’ was just stability."
Barakat also feels that a huge part of anyone’s success while transitioning to college life is “grounding yourself” on campus, before anything else.
“Whether that's finding a mentor, whatever that grounding process could look like … because exiting the military, or just going into the educational space — it's reintegration.”
Grounding Yourself, Whatever That Looks Like
Recounting his time as a student at East L.A. College, Ortiz described the Veterans Resource Center as a safe space for veterans. He appreciated the camaraderie, the cohesion, and the opportunity to ease into meaningful connections with veteran and non-veteran peers.
Beyond a sense of community, Veteran Resource Centers at many colleges also provide practical resources for student veterans that might be commonplace to others — resources like access to computers, a stable internet connection, and free printing.
“I don't have to go to the library or wherever and wait in line, and get all frustrated because of it. The Veterans Resource Center really gets rid of a lot of stressors,” Ortiz said.
We do a presentation on ‘this is a veteran, this is what they look like, this is what they smell like, you know, don't be offended by the F word. It's part of the transition.
Carol Calandra, the director of the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, has made it her mission to relieve some of the stressors that student veterans face. Calandra started advocating for veterans in 2007, largely because of the changes she noticed in her own family members transitioning out of service.
Now, she’s a pillar of the veteran community at PCC, and collaborates with other community colleges to improve resource accessibility for veterans across Southern California. She also teaches a course titled “From Boots to Books” for student veterans transitioning into academic life.
“I crack myself up because I think of myself as this like ginormous octopus, right? I got an arm everywhere,” Calandra said. “You're having a mental health issue? Here, call my friend. Oh, you don't have housing? Oh, here. Here's the contact to housing. Oh, you don't have your schoolbooks, right? You know, those types of things.”
Calandra said veterans most commonly take advantage of assistance with accessing G.I. Bill benefits, mental health support, and practical resources for everyday college life when visiting Veterans Resource Centers. One thing she wishes students asked her about more, however, are the financial benefits and scholarships beyond the G.I. bill.
“Because they are getting their BAH (basic allowance for housing) and the educational benefits, they do not apply for financial aid," Calandra said. "If your only income is BAH, you qualify for financial aid, and you qualify for scholarships, and you qualify for the Pell Grants and the Cal Grants and all of that kind of stuff.”
Calandra added that student veterans shying away from additional aid might illuminate a larger theme among service members.
“The Army's motto at one point in time was, ‘I'm an army of one.’ Like, I don't need anyone, I could do this all by myself, right? When they're done with service, there's no switch, right? I'm an army of one, right? Now what?”
Itzel Barakat noticed the same trend.
“It’s a common thing among veterans, not seeking help … they feel that someone needs the help more than I do,” Barakat said.
A Need For Greater 'Cultural Competency'
Thomas Ortiz told stories of peers with service dogs who were asked to leave the classroom by their professor. While the conflict was addressed by the Veterans Resource Center, it was a discouraging experience, and it revealed the lack of knowledge among some faculty about what transitioning veterans need to be academically successful.
Ortiz expressed the need for greater “cultural competency” about veterans on college campuses, and the challenges that come with transitioning into an academic environment, and “understanding that transitions are a thing, and they do something to the human body, the human brain.” He added: “Understanding that veterans come from a structured environment can prompt professors to identify who the veterans are in the classroom. Sometimes there’s just one.”
At Pasadena City College, the Veterans Resource Center has developed trainings for faculty on how transitioning out of service affects student veterans. The two-hour program is called “Got Your Six” — the military version of “I got your back.”
“Understand that a veteran may sit in the back of the classroom every single time because that veteran is scanning the classroom,” she said. “Where's the safety exit? Things like that.”
Calandra attributes the reach of the Veterans Resource Center on her campus to a supportive faculty.
“They allow us, the VRC, to come to every division meeting. We do a like, 10- to 15-minute presentation on, 'This is a veteran, this is what they look like, this is what they smell like, you know, don't be offended by the F word.' It's part of the transition.”
But on a lot of campuses, cultural competency surrounding the experiences of student veterans is still a work in progress. At colleges where resources are lacking, student veterans must seek assistance in their local community. And when searching for help off campus, it can be tricky to identify which resources will actually provide the best support.
“It’s definitely a word-of-mouth game,” Barakat said. “Reach out to local organizations. I mean, the list is long and wide. And sometimes that information is just unavailable, because it's outdated. But I would say don't give up. If you're in the L.A. area, reach out to Patriotic Hall. They have a number of different organizations there — legal, employment, housing."
Barakat also recommends subscribing to the Veterans Affairs newsletter to discover career opportunities specifically for service-connected community members. And if you’re a female veteran in Southern California, she recommends getting in touch with The Foundation for Women Warriors.
“They share pretty much all types of resources," she said. "I'm doing a webinar about finding a fulfilling career.”
The webinar will include panels on employment skills, how to calculate compensation, and networking opportunities with the surrounding community. They’re also providing free headshots.
Continue The Mission
For Thomas Ortiz, using his educational benefits is a way to continue as a service member beyond his time in the military.
“Continue the mission by using your federal educational benefits. They're attached to your military service, so continue the mission,” Ortiz said. “Social work, the advocacy work, to push for equity, equality, you know, dignity and respect. All those things that align a lot with the military’s values and my upbringing … I think social work is my best route to impact the world.”
Calandra believes that supporting veterans as they navigate their educational benefits, and increasing connectivity among the veteran community, is the fulfillment of an unwritten contract. According to Calandra, it’s a community’s responsibility to ensure that service members are taken care of when they return from duty, inside the classroom and beyond.
“When you join the service, you actually sign a contract, right? And that contract says, I'm joining x branch … for x amount of years,” she said. “But on the backside of that contract, once the active duty service member has fulfilled their end of the contract, it's time for us to fill ours.”