By Paul Holston
At the age of 17, I decided to join the United States Army as a Public Affairs Specialist/Journalist. At the age of 19, I served my first and only combat deployment tour in Baghdad, Iraq. At 23, as a Sergeant, I was honorably discharged and began one of the biggest, yet most exciting, challenges so far in my life: I went back to college to finish and earn my undergraduate degree. Last year, I became both a military veteran and a Howard man, but the struggle as a veteran student between the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and Howard University has been complicated and beyond frustrating. Both the VA and Howard University need to work together to restructure their respective systems, which include communication, structure, timeliness and standards, as this will provide a smoother transition for veterans becoming college students. This will not only help newly, enrolled veteran students, but also current veteran students, such as I.
Howard University and the military are, of course, two very different cultures. At Howard, the culture is an academic oversight with vast opportunities of quality education, as well as an environment where one is able to grow not only academically, but also socially and professionally. On the contrary, the culture within the military, specifically the Army, is based on being mission orientated and having core values, discipline, high standards and organization. Although Howard has its own core values, to include being dedicated to a search for truth, being free of oppression of any type, stripe or kind and providing a caring, nurturing and respectful environment for all members of the Howard family, it fails in upholding these values when it comes to veteran students here.
As a student at Howard University, I have experienced very similar “Howard struggles” like many of my colleagues. Upon arriving at Howard last year, with knowing a gist of what to expect systematically here, I took the time to stay below the radar and get an authentic feeling of this new environment. As a veteran, because of the known, nationwide VA systematic failures, I was well aware that it would take time to adjust and work things outs between the VA and Howard. The personal struggles I have faced have been internally infuriating and another culture shock. By not being introduced to the Howard structure like a normal, new student normally is, having to go back and forth between the Mordecai Johnson Administration Building and Service Center to make sure my documents are sent through proper channels, to little-to-no responses, whether phone call or email from departments within Howard University and the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, many times I felt that I was reaching my breaking point. The miscommunication between the Howard VA department in the Office of Student Affairs, the student accounts department in Howard’s Financial Aid Office and the VA VR Counselor are inefficient and unacceptable not only for myself, but also for my fellow veterans who go through similar, if not, exact procedures to make sure that everything is moving along smoothly for us outside of our classes and daily life.
There is no clear communication between all of these parties, period. There is no timeliness of assuring a veteran is confirmed with registering each semester. Overall, there is no formal structure, currently, for veterans here at Howard. Because of this, I, as well as other veterans I’m sure, would like to sit down with all parties and top administration to assist in identifying pinpoint inefficiencies within this system and create long-term solutions for not only the present, but for the future. Military veterans seldom walk around with an indicator of their service. After all, there are few differences between us and any of our colleagues. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, veteran undergraduates make up roughly four percent of the national student body, and although a relatively small percentage, the number is expected to increase as more service members return home from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. As students, we all attend this great university to get an education and a degree, but the only difference with military veterans is that we simply start later. But as the great saying goes: “Better late than never, right?”
For me, as a student at this university, I want to contribute in breaking down the communication barrier between veterans and the Howard community. Many veterans experience difficulty in transitioning from the military to civilian life, and I, for one, can be a testament to this because I am experiencing this transition. By opening communication up between veteran students and civilians, this will allow for an easier transiting process for veterans and give students, professors, faculty, alumni and all of the Howard community, an insight beyond ROTC and into a world they likely have never experienced. Specifically toward veteran students, by Howard’s actions, they have shown a great flaw within their system that is the total opposite of the well-structured, organized system within the military that has been embedded into my mind. I would like to assist in working together to create short-term and long-term solutions to the flaws within the system that we as veterans, and students alike, face at Howard.
[Story was Published in Howard University’s “The Hilltop” Student Newspaper 3Sept2015]