In this first of several guest blog posts, Harvard Extension School Lecturer Cynthia A. Meyersburg, Ph.D., compiled the advice she often gives to student Veterans. In this series, Meyersburg guides student Veterans on how to prepare for and succeed when returning to an academic school. This post examines what student Vets should do outside the classroom before returning to school.

More than just traditional academic skills are required for full academic success. The skills and abilities you developed during your military service will serve you well as you become a student. In particular, your leadership skills, your teamwork experience and your dedication can help you succeed. Think about the ways in which you have grown and the skills and abilities you have developed while serving our country. You will bring these skills and abilities with you as you move forward in school, in your next career, and in your life.

Get your support network ready

You can probably anticipate many of the ways that being a student will be different than serving on active duty. One of the changes that many people may not fully anticipate is how boundaries will be different. While you were on active duty, you either were on duty or off duty (or deployed or not deployed), and there was a clear boundary between the two. You could leave your work at the office (or in the field), so that, when home, you could focus on other roles, such as being a partner or parent.

In contrast, as a student, you’ll be bringing work home with you. Even when you’re home, you will need time to focus on your studies, such as on reading assignments, learning material, working on projects, writing papers and preparing for exams. How much time outside of class you will need to spend on your school work will vary depending on what classes you’re taking and on when assignments are due. You will need to manage your time, working ahead and anticipating when you’ll be especially busy with schoolwork.

If you’re in a relationship or if you’re a parent, your need to bring work home with you will mean changes for the people you love, too.  For instance, you may have a spouse who is used to you being able to focus on home life whenever you are not on duty. If you’re in a relationship, talk about how these changes may impact home life. Set up the expectation that you’ll need to bring your academic work home with you. Work together on strategies for you to be able to succeed in school, and remember that you’ll only be a student for only a limited time – so these are temporary challenges.

If you’re a parent, you may need assistance with childcare. You may be able to get help from family or friends, arrange for extra activities, or join a babysitting cooperative. And, if your children are old enough, you may be able to talk with them about why you are going to school and how it may help the whole family. Remember: You can be an excellent parent and a successful student, but it will require planning and teamwork.

Get yourself financially prepared

For most people, being a student will mean living on less money. This should be a temporary challenge. Data on lifetime earnings indicate that, in most cases, people with college degrees will earn significantly more money over their lifetimes than will people who have only high school degrees. Over the long term, more money can mean better quality of life and greater opportunities for you and your loved ones. So, it very likely will be a worthwhile investment for you to sacrifice temporarily now in order to have better paying career opportunities in the future. However, not all schools and programs are equally good. It is tremendously important to select a school that meets VA’s Principles of Excellence criteria.

In my opinion – and speaking generally – avoid for-profit colleges and universities. Also, consider the graduation rates for any program before you make a decision to attend; if the graduation rate is low, this could be a telling sign that it probably isn’t the right program for you.

While you are a student, you probably will need to be careful about how you spend money. Be sure you understand your benefits. Before returning to school, make a realistic budget. If possible, build up an emergency fund prior to returning to school. Research indicates that not having enough resources can lead people to making poor choices, such as taking out high-interest, short-term loans. If you have an emergency fund, then an unexpected expense (such as a large vet bill because a beloved family pet was ill, or a deductible from a minor car accident) will not put you in financial distress. If you later encounter an emergency expense, meet with a financial aid officer at your school. Some schools have the ability to offer a small, one-time grant to help students with an emergency expense.

Promote your wellbeing outside the classroom

Exercise and sleep are two of the most important things you can do to help yourself succeed as a student. Most people in the United States do not get enough of either. Inadequate sleep can be both a causal factor and a maintaining factor for a variety of health problems. Irregular and inadequate sleep increases the risk of unhealthy weight gain and cardiovascular problems, as well as contributing to impaired attention and alertness, difficulties with impulse control, and problems with emotional wellbeing.

Unfortunately, difficulty sleeping is a very common problem among Veterans returning to school. Some of the sleep factors that Veterans face include post traumatic stress, caring for an infant in the house, suffering from sleep apnea, or even just difficulty managing (or finding) time.

Inadequate sleep not only can be caused by clinical issues, it also can be a causal or maintaining factor for clinical issues. In other words, not having a healthy sleep schedule not only can be caused by health problems (e.g., depression), but also can lead to health problems or play an important role in the problem continuing. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor, therapist or other medical professional about ways to improve your sleep.

It’s also important for you to find ways to include regular exercise in your life. While you were on active duty, you maintained your physical health, making sure you met fitness standards. You probably already are aware that regular exercise provides tremendous health benefits, such as greater strength and improved cholesterol ratios. Regular exercise also can significantly improve your ability to focus your attention and mental flexibility, as well as improving the quality of your sleep and improving your mood. (Research findings show that for people dealing with depression, regular exercise is especially beneficial because it can help reduce symptoms of depression.)

When you’re planning your schedule, set aside time for regular exercise. You may want to join a team or club so that you can combine exercise with social activity. In order to help maintain good exercise habits, some people find it helpful to use technology, such as an exercise tracking application on their phones or a wearable fitness tracker (such as a Fitbit, Apple Watch, etc.). If you have physical limitations, create your exercise plan with the help of your physician or physical therapist.

Connection and community

One problem you may face is feeling isolated. It’s important to find ways to connect with people in your community. This can be especially challenging if you’re at a school where most of the students commute, or most of the students are significantly younger than you. It’s important for you to build community for yourself.

One of the best aspects of military service is the sense of community and family that comes with service. Although you’ll always be part of the military family, while you are in school, you’ll need to establish additional bonds. If possible, seek out other student Veterans. Your fellow student Veterans may become some of your closest and most valued friends. Whether in campus organizations, local volunteer groups, a religious organization, a Veterans club, or another activity, find people with whom you can connect. It’s important socially, and it also may be beneficial in other ways, such as networking.

Suggested activities:

  • Keep a log for one week noting your time spent sleeping, exercising and engaging in academic work outside of the classroom. Are you getting enough sleep, exercise and study time? If not, what changes can you make to better meet your needs? Then make any needed changes and keep a log for another week. Did the changes help?
  • Know your VA benefits and resources. Choose the right school or program for you. Use the comparison tool to make an informed choice.
  • Then, investigate campus or community groups or activities you think might be interesting, meaningful or fun. Make a list of groups or activities you might want to try. Attend a meeting or event.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how to prepare for academic success.


Cynthia A. Meyersburg, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Harvard Extension School in the Division of Continuing Education at Harvard University. She thanks retired Air Force Maj. Christopher Kim and Navy Lt. Melinda Mathis, NC, for their contributions and support.

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