5 ways for vet students to relate to their civilian classmates


Chances are, if you’re using your GI Bill benefits, you’ve probably been in the military for at least a couple of years. That means that you’re somewhere between a bit and a whole lot older than your college classmates. Either way, you’re likely to find that there can be an uncomfortable barrier that exists within the classroom.

Even if don’t plan on running for student government or spending your weekends popping keg stands, a few friendly interactions with classmates can help you avoid four years of silently trudging in and out of class. Here are five tips during your military-to-civilian transition that you might find helpful to bridge the gap if you are going to college after the military

1. Be nice

This one might seem obvious, but it sometimes can be important to remember that “nice” is relative. Military social etiquette can be a bit, let’s call it “unfiltered,” than civilians are used to. You may find that banter with your peers where boots are threatened to be lodged in certain places may not go over quite as well in an academic setting. If possible, avoid referring to them with pet names such as “Freshman Shmuckatelli.”

One area where veterans excel in the classroom is with their ability to interact with an instructor when there is an area of confusion. An 18-year-old freshman might be unwilling to speak up and ask about an error on a syllabus, but keen veterans like yourself know unsat when you see it, and aren’t afraid to point it out. A good way to get on your classmates’ good side is to mediate any sources of confusion with the instructor, and share it with the class.

2. They may seem scary, but they’re probably as afraid of you as you are of them

You’ve completed basic training. You’ve braved the rigors of deployments and workups and KP duty. You’ve battled service bureaucracy and come out more-or-less intact. You can deal with young adults!

Remember, for most college students, their experience with the military is confined to watching Full Metal Jacket or Rambo. For many of them, the military is a scary world, with nothing other than gritty combat and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman shouting hurtful-yet-humorous insults while conducting open ranks inspections. Approach your younger classmates like you would a deer (outside of hunting season). Use slow movements. Nothing too scary. If you want to feed them, avoid grains and grasses. Pizza or a burrito is the smart play here.

3. Get smart about new slang, and use it sparingly

The goal here is to understand what the heck they are saying, not to emulate it. Remember when you were young and an older person tried to be “hip” by saying something was “groovy,” “gnarly” or “totally tubular?” Chances are, you will sound the same way. Perhaps kids today are nowhere near as “x-treme” as you may have been in the past, but it’s probably better if you don’t let them know that.

4. Don’t expect your classmates to respect your old rank, or even have any idea what it means

Sorry to say, master chief, if you tell your classmates your military rank, they are guaranteed to reply “just like Halo!” They have no idea what that means. This really isn’t as bad as it might seem. Remember how, once you woke up from the post-bootcamp haze, you realized that the work a service member does is only occasionally tied to the rank they wear? I’ll bet you’ve encountered lower enlisted members who worked miracles and higher-ranking NCOs and officers who could barely tie their shoes. In the civilian world, that means that if you can describe the work you did in the military, it goes a lot farther than explaining rank anyway. If you treated soldiers in the field, or got to steer an aircraft carrier, that means way more to a civilian than saying you were a specialist or a seaman.

Also, never tell them you were a seaman. They are 100 percent guaranteed to laugh. Heck, you probably still laugh about it too.

5. You have different life experiences, and that’s OK

Even if you’ve separated from military service in your early 20s, you are likely going to find that your experience is different from the college seniors who are around your own age. This is normal. You’ve done something far different than they have with the last few years of your life. There is no reason that you can’t have a fulfilling social experience. Maybe you’ll even learn something.

Are you ready to go back to school?

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