Women Veterans Look Toward Furthering Their Education

America's two million female veterans are looking toward the future, and many are improving their employment opportunities by enrolling in courses. What issues do women veterans confront when they return to school?

"It's hard to generalize," says Elizabeth Stanley, Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former Army captain. Because their experiences are so different from those of their classmates, both male and female veterans often complain of isolation in college, but for women, explains Stanley, loneliness can be even more acute. Female veterans may have little experience working with other women and not know how to reach out to female classmates, she explains. Male veterans recognize one another on campus -- a buzz cut, a camouflage bag, a tattoo -- but female veterans are less easy to identify and so have more trouble forming groups. Some universities, such as Georgetown, have formed active female military communities that help women veterans overcome their sense of isolation.

For military women who have been sexually abused -- nearly 1 in 4, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights -- it may be difficult to connect with male professors. "They are guarded," says Stanley, "which means they have trouble finding mentors, and this will impact their academic careers." These women often struggle to define boundaries, explains Stanley. "Since they've experienced boundary ruptures in the past, they may not know what's appropriate." A soldier who must remain anonymous because she is still on active duty adds, "Many young girls join the military right out of high school. Suddenly, they are surrounded by men, and it's exciting. Sometimes they make a remark or a gesture that's entirely innocent, but it's misinterpreted and leads to a sexual situation. This can make women apprehensive around men even after they transition out of the military." Men as well as women complain that some college advisors underestimate the abilities of veterans and try to steer them into easy courses, but women who have an uncomfortable relationship with men may be more likely to succumb to pressure from a male administrator.

In spite of these potential obstacles, the vast majority of women veterans I spoke with said they had few problems easing into college. Stanley says that women veterans have one important advantage: they've already been successful in challenging environments. "They've taken risks and they know themselves pretty well," she says. "Furthermore, they've worked in teams and know how to get along with others."

Air Force veteran Gloria Ornelas says, "My transition into civilian life was a smooth and anticipated event. I got out of the military on January 1 and on January 5, I was sitting in a classroom." Likewise, Inga Wildermuth, who was a captain in the Army, says that adjusting to student life was easy. "I have moved on average once a year," she explains. "You're in a new location, you make new friends. It builds self-confidence. I know I can deal with the unforeseen. I've learned to identify the people who will make good friends and to network. And I'm not afraid to ask questions."

Many women say that their military training prepared them for student life by developing their communication skills. A major in the U.S. Marine Corps, Jennifer Marino was a CH 46E (transport helicopter) pilot and completed an M.A. at the University of Pennsylvania last year. She says the wide range of people she met in the service has enabled her to connect easily with both military and non-military colleagues. Although she worked almost entirely with men, she is comfortable working with either sex. "I have 'softer strengths,'" she says, "such as gratitude, kindness, empathy. I can balance a softer perspective with toughness, and other Marines appreciate this." Marino believes her military experiences have helped make her adaptable. "I bring a lot to the table because I served in combat. I worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I've seen poverty, suffering, other people's demons," she explains.

Navy lieutenant Samantha Dugan argues that whether a veteran adapts easily to student life depends more on the personality than the sex of the individual. When it comes to harassment, some people -- both men and women -- are overly sensitive, she says. "If a guy behaves like a jerk, it's because he's a jerk, not because he's a guy." As a flight officer, Dugan was able to make the transition to an Executive MBA Leadership program at Georgetown University while still on active duty, thanks to the Navy's sea-shore cycle, which alternates deployments with land-based jobs. "The challenge is to go from sea to shore and do something completely different from what you're used to," she says. Because she was accustomed to facing change, adjusting to student life was simple. Besides, she explains, there were a lot of military women in her class, and her professors were supportive, so she never felt ill at ease. Dugan believes her military preparation improved her chances for success at Georgetown by reinforcing her natural tendency toward structure and discipline and by stressing the importance of mission. "The Navy helped me realize that I can do anything I set my mind to," says Dugan.

For women contemplating the transition from military to student life, here are a few hints:
1. Have a clear idea of your goals, and be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Pick an appropriate program, but don't aim too low!
2. If you need additional training or credits, spend a year or two at a community college.
3. Find a veteran-friendly campus. Check the institution's website to see if there are special listings for veterans. Choose a campus with an active female veterans group, if that's important to you.
4. Check to see what educational benefits you are entitled to. Explore the school's Yellow Ribbon program and private scholarships.
5. Have confidence in yourself. You have already met difficult challenges and succeeded. You can succeed again!