Special UW-L orientation helps veterans transition from combat to college

Published On: Aug 24 2011 06:07:55 PM CDT

LA CROSSE, Wis.-- This fall, thousands of freshmen are hitting college campuses all over the state. For some, that can be a difficult transition. But when you're a military veteran, trading your combat boots for a backpack can be even more unsettling.

And when one UW-La Crosse student veteran saw others like him struggling, he decided to do something about it.

If you saw Daryl Thomas walking around UW-L's campus, you probably wouldn't notice anything unusual. He's on Student Senate, he does internships and he's trying to get into grad school.

But Thomas isn't just your average college student. He used to be in the Navy. And in 2008, he went from spending his days in submarines to spending his days in classrooms.

"Whenever I tell somebody I'm 25-26, they're like, seriously? And so then you tell them a little about what you did and sometimes it even shuts people away from you because you're so different," said Thomas.

That's one of the reasons Thomas started "From Combat to College" last year. It's an orientation for incoming veterans transitioning from the military to college life.

Students who come from the military face many hurdles other students wouldn't even think twice about. Seemingly simple things like assigned seating can be big challenge.

"Sometimes people don't like to have their backs to other people. And that's one thing. I was never in combat, whereas a lot of Iraqi and Afghanistan vets were, so that's one of the things that a lot of people face," said Thomas.

Psychology professor Carol Oyster is the Adviser for UW-L's Student Veterans Association.

She said one of the biggest adjustments for student vets is the lack of structure in college life.

"The military is an extraordinarily structured environment and existence. They are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. They are fed, they are clothed, they are housed. And coming from that kind of extreme structure, a college situation seems chaotic," said Oyster.

The difference can make it difficult for veterans to relate to other first-year students here on campus who, for the most part, are teenagers fresh out of high school.

"Whereas some kids skip class so much, it is-- to me it's crazy and just ridiculous because in the military if you'd ever skip work or anything, you'd get in trouble because you're on a contract. Here it's just go as you want, leave as you want," said Thomas.

And Thomas hopes the "From Combat to College" orientation will help keep veterans on track by keeping them together.

"Sometimes you fall apart if you're all alone or if you don't have too much assistance but we want to provide assistance, and be friends with everyone, and try to help as much as possible," said Thomas.

Last year was the first "From Combat to College" orientation at UW-L. Only five people turned out. But this year, 20 student veterans have already said they plan to show up.

U-W-L currently has more than 200 veteran students. Thirty-five new veterans will start school there this fall.