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Lumina podcast: Time to recognize lessons learned in the military

Army.mil / Noriko Kudo

This is adapted from our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” Click the video below to see the show, or if you’re on the go, catch us on iTunes or wherever audio podcasts are found. To see more episodes, please go to the show’s website.

Veterans leave the military with training and skills that can be incredibly useful in the civilian world. But many find that when they enroll in higher education, they get little or no credit for what they’ve learned.

How we rectify that—how we help veterans make the best use of what they’ve learned serving our country, and how we make the transition to higher education easier for them—is the subject of the 15th installment of my Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent.”

My guests are: Lauren Runco, Lumina's strategy officer for military-based learning; Tanya Ang, vice president of Veterans Education Success, an organization whose mission is to advance higher education success for veterans, service members, and military families; and veterans John Sullivan, Michele Poitier, and Brandon Nivens.

They tell me that fixing the current system requires adjustments on multiple levels if we are to help the 1.3 million active-duty service members and the 200,000 who are transitioning to veteran status. One fix is making sure that the learning and training they’ve received in the service translates into real learning in the civilian context and counts for credit. A second is in dealing with the human element: Veterans need someone on campus who can give them correct information and help them navigate a new system.

“It’s not the college’s job to understand that I was once in charge of training 90-some people and maintaining three crafts and doing 8,000-some maintenance checks a month,” said veteran John Sullivan, who found, inexplicably, that his training as an electrician in the Navy only counted toward a fire science degree. “But what they need to understand is, I’ve been a trained leader. I need to be led now…. Without that, it makes all of that twice as difficult. You need to know who can lead you through the process.”

Sullivan said he went back to school as a 27-year-old, walking on a cane, and “I just felt awash in a sea of toddlers, with professors who didn’t understand where I was coming from. You have to adapt quickly or get washed away. That makes it a really trying process.”

Brandon Nivens, who spent four years in the Navy, said his experience going back to school was that while he was ready to take on the world, the world had other ideas.

“I go see this one person,” he said, “and they say, ‘Oh, what you’ve worked for, for four to eight years, it’s crap.’ Thanks. You go to the next person. ‘Oh, also, you need to take all these remedial classes. The VA’s not going to pay for that.’ Thanks. So, you’re batting 0-for-2 already.”

All three veterans said one trait the military instilled in them was a never-give-up attitude. They’re also taught that when they don’t know something, they need to ask. “Because if you assume,” Nivens said, “you can kill someone.”

But Michele Poitier, who served in the military as a codebreaker for 13 years, found the higher education system difficult to decode.

“If you give us the instructions on how to navigate the process, then we will succeed,” she said. “But they have to be clear instructions. And if you tell us one thing and then you’re showing us something else. Or if that changes in the middle, OK, we’re back to square one.”

Until schools become more veteran-friendly, Nivens recommended that veterans find a mentor who can model success for them.

“If I’d had that,” he said, “things would have been a lot different.”