By Mackenzie Davis
“I really need to fix my house so it’s safe for my kids to live in.”
“I need groceries.”
“My utilities are being shut off.”
These were just some of the responses Kendra Bearss, student navigator for the Veterans Center and full time student, received when reaching out to her fellow veteran students attending Grand Rapids Community College.
Unlike a lot of students coming right from high school, veteran students are faced with numerous unique barriers to receiving higher education after serving our country.
“Most veterans go through high school then spend a good chunk of their time at a military installation or deployed,” said veteran student Chris Pearson, 33, of Grand Rapids, “They come back and it’s like ‘hey here’s all this new information that you’re supposed to know’ but you don’t.”
On top of trying to relearn topics most students brought with them from high school, these veterans are dealing with the hassles of everyday life and the after effects of serving in the military.
“Most of us are older and have a lot of other responsibilities…We’re dealing with spouse, children, full time jobs, all of the grownup stuff,” Bearss said. “A lot of these veterans might have hearing loss… they might have physical issues (or) are very hyper vigilant so when they go somewhere, they want to be able to sit and see everything, the exits, the people.”
The GRCC’s Veteran Center offers many different areas of support for veterans dealing with some of these struggles, but it isn’t just the center that can make a difference in these students’ lives. When it comes to a classroom setting Bearss and Pearson share how the staff and students can also make a positive impact.
“As far as students, I would say maybe understanding it might take a veteran a little bit longer to learn information,” Pearson said. “More or less trying to be patient.”
Another way people can make a difference is by being more aware of the questions asked to veterans. A very common question Pearson and others receive is, “How many people have you killed?” According to Pearson, “Most people in that situation have never wanted to even talk about it to a therapist let alone some random person they don’t know.”
Professors’ patience could also be a big factor in creating a better experience for veteran students. Understanding that some veterans need to sit in certain areas if seating charts are used or other accommodations. Bearss expressed the importance of reaching out to these students and how listening is another support system that could aid their educational journey.
Patrick Coleman, director of the Veteran Center, has also been working on getting information out on how staff can help. He advises staff to be an open resource for students who want to talk, rather than trying to counsel. Coleman recognizes that this support is a two way street and not all teachers will know they have veteran students.
“Some staff do help veterans if they recognize them as such,” Coleman said. “If they don’t know them to be veterans, they are looked at as typical students…It’s a bridge building between the veteran and the instructor.”
Coleman advises veteran students to reach out to their professors for help in class or let them know if seating or anything else might be an issue for the students’ comfort.
Bearss is majoring in photography and Pearson is returning to get his degree in criminal justice. When asked what inspires him in his everyday life Pearson responded, “The drive to be a part of something bigger than myself again.”