Things I Wish I Knew Before I Tried My Hand at College
By Mad Medic
Almost every enlisted Joe can’t wait to get out and go to that magical land called “college” where they can get a degree and make the big bucks. It’s the American dream, and the GI Bill is one of the few entitlements you can honestly say is earned. The fact that all the girls walk around in yoga pants doesn’t hurt. It’s like a Mecca of the young and restless, where you can sort of fuck off, have a good time, and get career training for the future, right? Well. . . no, not really. College is almost exactly not at all what you were expecting. There are some things I wish I had known before I started college that I now know a bit too late to help me. Rather than sit there and bitch and moan about my lot in life, I’d rather pass on the things I’ve learned so you don’t end up making the same mistakes I did.
Know what you want to do: this may sound simplistic and even stupid, but coming to college with no idea what’s involved in your degree path, or even what the hell you want to get a degree in is not a good idea. In my case, I thought a BS in Biology was “pre-med.” By the time I realized this it was a *bit* late to switch my majors. My current degree path started off as a minor, and I spent three semesters trying to get a BS, not the BA I’m trying to get now.
My advice is to pick out a job that is somewhat similar to your interests. Keep in mind your limitations. If you suck at math, getting an engineering degree is probably not a good idea. Even if you pick the “wrong” degree, don’t worry; as long as it’s not something really stupid like Fashion Marketing, you’ll probably be able to pull down a decent job even if that career field isn’t in your degree path. Switching majors often is not a good idea.
Have your finances in order before you show up: I love that the Post 9/11 GI bill came with a living stipend. That really saved my ass. There’s just one teeny tiny problem with the Post 9/11 GI Bill; you have to go through the VA. If you don’t have your ducks in a row before the first day of school, then you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Expect delays. Look for a part time or full time job before you start college. Trust me when I say that it’s far preferable to be a part time student than to be broke, starving, and having creditors calling you every day with an overdrawn bank account. This has happened to me.
You may not like it, but seriously considering taking out a student loan for your first semester. If you don’t need it no harm done, but it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have. Dipping into the credit cards is a big no-no, especially if you’re a college student.
Find a social outlet ASAP: You’re probably not going to fit in with your typical student, that’s just a fact. Most of the graduates are 23, and if you’re getting out after a 4 year enlistment, you’ll be starting at 23. Your maturity level will be way different, especially if you’ve been to combat. You’ll have a different way of talking and acting, the things you value are different. You’re going to be an oddity for most of your classmates. You’ll need a place to vent and keep you from becoming isolated. I’m not going to recommend Fraternities (though if you do join one, Kappa Alpha is always good!) or that you join/start a Vet Club. I’m going to tell you find a club, a sport, something you can do that will get you with likeminded people that you can vent with. This can be a great support system if you’re having issues, and often times if you’re having trouble navigating the bureaucracy, having someone else that’s been in a similar situation helps.
No one cares: This is one of the hardest things to square up about the college environment. They go on and on about how inclusive, caring, and insightful they are but at the end of the day unless you’re a very specific type of person, no one gives a flying fuck about you. “Oh you served in the Army? That’s cool, I was thinking about joining then I got into college. . .” Yeah, I shit you not people have said those exact words to me. People will ask you about your service out of curiosity, but they don’t actually want to know. As far as they’re concerned, you’re ripped right from Full Metal Jacket, the Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. If Iraq of Afghanistan ever do come up, that Abortion that Lived (ATL) “Hurt Locker” will be taken at face value for how it really is.
The truth is, you could have been anything from a shit-shoveler to Sal Giunta, and most of them wouldn’t have a clue or care. The only people that do will be people with a veteran advocacy background or fellow veterans. You’re not alone, but don’t expect anyone to know or care what your badges mean or what your MOS was. You need to understand that from the outset. You have to understand, you’re coming to them—not the other way around. The military is a pretty exclusive club; there’s only .45% of the US population under arms. You’ll have to find your own path, but for four years (at least) you’d better know how to differentiate your military world from your civilian world.
Know which habits to keep (and which to get rid of): There are some things that you learned in the military that are actually a good thing. Being on time (see: early) is a very good habit. Knife-hands…less so. You’ll also have to come to grips with the fact that the very blunt way you address people—especially when addressing their failures—won’t work. The civilian world actually does have Hurt Feelings reports (they’re called law suits), and you can pay dearly for suggesting someone needs to remove their cranium from their rectum ricky-tick before you rip off their skull and defecate down their throats. In some states, “verbal assault” (what you might call getting chewed out) is actually a crime, and you will actually go to jail. Until you get the lay of the land it would behoove you to shut your mouth and keep you head on a swivel.
Another habit you may find doesn’t translate well is your work ethic. In the military you stay until the job’s done. In some civilian jobs not only is that a bad thing but you could potentially get fired for it. College too has similar problems. Perfectionism, which is absolutely essential, may actually get you into trouble. You’ll need to learn when to go all out, and when the teacher just wants something in their hands. Knowing which assignments require attention to detail and which are filler will help you budget your time.
It’s ok to have fun, but it’s easy to have too much: There are no formations. There’s no hit times. No NCOs that will shit bricks if you miss movement. In fact if you do a shitty job, no one will really care. The best/worst part is that there is always a party going on. You can find a house party, a frat party, or hell “it’s Wednesday” party. There are drugs, loose women (and men), and more alcohol than you can drink in fifty lifetimes, and that’s just at one party. You can have so much fun, or get into so much trouble, it’s not even really funny. Be careful. Chasing tail and drinking till you were blacking out was fine when you were in the barracks, but this is nowhere near that. You have no chain of command to call. Strange as it may sound actually having a repetitive safety brief is a good thing. Being in college and being a know-it-all smart ass veteran you might think “I’m still good to drive” and get a DUI. Forgetting to wrap it up is also a very bad idea.
The GI Bill is there for you. You earned it. Use it. I want you to succeed. I want to see you get elected, run your own company, be a millionaire. If you’ve gone downrange, if you’ve had your ass nearly shot off or survived some harrowing tale of incoming, you deserve to have a shot at success. I can’t guarantee that this will work out for you, nor even that you’ll enjoy your time at college, but I can guarantee that you above all your peers at college have earned a little Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Go forth and kick ass.