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3 Ways to Connect With Fellow Veterans as an Online Student
May 19, 2015 | Devon Haynie | U.S. News & World Report
Online education can be a popular option for veterans and members of the military.
Virtual learning allows students to study from anywhere – be it from a living room or military base – and gives adults the flexibility they need to balance a hectic work, family and school schedule. Moreover, taking online classes can give veterans with physical or mental wounds the chance to earn a degree without facing some of the challenges of studying on campus.
On the flip side, online learning can be a little isolating, and service members and veterans may find themselves looking to connect with others about the GI Bill, finishing school while deployed or the job search.
Veterans and members of the military "need people who understand their situation and what they are going through," says Louis Martini, associate vice president of military and veteran education at Thomas Edison State College. "And they do tend to open up more to veterans who have similar experience."
Below are three steps veterans in online bachelor's programs can take to connect with their peers.
1. Contact classmates directly: Online students are typically required to make brief introductions at the start of class. And in many cases, veterans or service members will reference their military experience in those shared paragraphs, says Air Force Master Sgt. James Wagner.
The California native earned his online bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—Worldwide, where veterans and military members made up about 74 percent of online undergraduate students in 2013-2014, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey.
"Read everyone's introduction," says Wagner, now pursuing an online master's degree in management from Colorado State University—Global Campus. "Reach out to them and ask a question."
Students don't necessarily need to be in touch on a class discussion board, where sometimes students will mention their military experience, but can instead reach out through email, says Oklahoma National Guard Lt. Col. Shad Satterthwaite, assistant vice president for university outreach and director of advanced programs at University of Oklahoma. Veterans and members of the military made up about 29 percent of online undergraduates in 2013-2014, per data reported to U.S. News.
"Students can say, 'Hey, I know you were serving in Iraq on these days. Did you happen to know this person?' or 'I had a buddy who was killed over there.' That helps you connect, and even though you are miles away you can have a common experience together – and I think that can be helpful."
2. Look for relevant virtual student groups: Last year, Wagner helped Colorado State University—Global Campus start its first chapter of Student Veterans of America, a national nonprofit that advocates for student veterans. He did it partly to network, but also to share his experience and help both undergraduates and graduate students navigate issues with the GI Bill, time management and studying while deployed.
Students with military experience will already see a link to the chapter when they open up their student portal. From there, Wagner says, students can access information about scholarships, job openings and services available for veterans.
At American Military University, more than 2,000 students are members of the school's Student Veterans of America chapter, says George Vukovich, director of veterans outreach. Recently, a group of students formed an organization for veterans who were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"There are a lot of students at a lot of universities that are suffering from invisible injuries and they want to communicate with like-minded people, people who are experiencing similar things," says Vukovich, a veteran of the Marines.
Schools often have unofficial veteran-focused Facebook groups that can also be good resources for students, experts say.
3. Explore school resources: In many instances, online programs will have their own resources for veterans in the form of dedicated staff or websites. At American Military University, for example, the school has created a virtual veterans center where students can learn about clubs, engage with others on discussion boards and explore job opportunities, among other options, Vukovich says.
At the University of Oklahoma, students have access to the Green Zone, a website with information about the school's Student Veterans of America chapter, scholarships for veterans and what to do when called to active duty while studying. Faculty can also be Green Zone certified, meaning they've gone through training to assist student veterans with their concerns.
"Schools advertise these kinds of things and if it's something you've got, then go check it out," Satterthwaite says. "If it's not what you think, that's OK. You don't have to be a part of it. But there may be something in there you would be missing out of otherwise."
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