Veterans In College Face Unique Challenges

Jun 13, 2013

Sam Talkington is cramming. It’s finals week at the University of Washington and he’s got an economics exam soon.

Talkington is majoring in finance at the Foster School of Business and he’s been feeling the crunch. “I have an extremely heavy course load right now,” he said. “I’m taking four courses and some stuff I’m not familiar with but becoming more familiar with as the days progress.”

Talkington grew up in Spokane and joined the Army right after high school. It was a lifelong dream; but after four years and two deployments, it was time for a change.

Like thousands of other Washington veterans, he’s pursuing his education with the help of the post 9/11 Veterans Assistance Act.

For Talkington and many other student vets the transition from military life to academia can at times be difficult. “The biggest challenge for me, especially here, is trying to relate to a lot of the students," he said. "Because although I’m not much older, their struggles and the stress they go through is much different."

Traditional students on campus may be experiencing exam anxiety for the first time. But by the time many young veterans get to college they’ve already experienced life, death and the carnage of war. As a result, Talkington is often confounded by some student’s apathy and lack of discipline.   

Indeed, for many college students the free flowing nature of college life is a part of the experience. But veterans like Talkington are used to a more regimented lifestyle. “In the military everything is really chain of command,” he said. “Here you don’t report to anyone. Everything is on your own. You get your own grades."

For veterans that can be unnerving and even frustrating.

In the military there’s safety in discipline and structure. On the battlefield it can mean the difference between life and death.  

Veteran numbers on the UW campus are growing. The university says this year there are 664. Statewide there are more than 32,000 veterans enrolled at community and technical colleges.

Thomas Jenkins is a student and the president of the Husky United Military Veterans. The organization exists to create community among vets. Their small, noisy office is deep in the basement of the Husky Union Building on campus.

When Jenkins briefs incoming veterans, he tries to prepare them for the differences between being in the military and being in college. “It gets a lot fuzzier as a college student,” he tells them. “And you need not necessarily like the fuzziness but accept that it’s a part of it. And there’s not very much you can do to separate that."

The change can make some vets feel isolated and this can exacerbate symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

But Jenkins says many vets are unwilling to talk about it. He tells them, “If you aren’t comfortable reaching out, we sincerely hope somebody close to you does recognize a change and is willing to intervene because they want to help you out. And that’s the best way to help you out.”

Talkington says most of the time he doesn’t even tell anyone he’s a veteran. “Unless people really ask about it I don’t really say much, because I feel that people don’t understand and they won’t," he said. "So I mean, honestly, everyday it’s kind of awkward.”

Talkington is not ashamed. He’s humble. It’s a trait that many veterans share.

Thomas Jenkins in the office of the Husky United Military Veterans. Jenkins is president of the student organization.
Thomas Jenkins in the office of the Husky United Military Veterans. Jenkins is president of the student organization.

In fact, it wasn’t until after the interview that we learned he was awarded a Purple Heart. Talkington was severely injured by an explosive projectile while working as a gunner on a Humvee in 2007. He still carries some of the shrapnel in his back.

But he tries not to think about it. His mind is on school.  “You know what you’ve done and you know the experiences you’ve had and the people you’ve been around,” he said. "But it’s also time to move on and take what you’ve learned and help society ultimately.”

Talkington is upbeat about his future. If all goes as planned he’ll graduate this time next year.