What Struggles Face Veterans in Higher Ed? This Marine and Dean of Vet Initiatives Will Tell You.

Ahead of Veterans Day, a break down of why the transition from the military to higher ed is so difficult and what can be done about it. 

David Keefe
November 05, 2021

I have worked with veterans for more than 10 years, witnessing their stories via creative workshops, college classrooms, focus groups, advising sessions, friendly connections, and many other encounters. The stories told come from a wide range of experiences, some terrible, some good. But one consistent narrative that threads throughout the veteran community has always been around the struggle of transition. 

With over 200,000 service members transitioning to civilian life each year, 40% to 75% of that number report difficulty adjusting. These difficulties, among others, can be navigating the Veterans Affairs, finding a job, acclimating to civilian culture, managing physical and mental health, and coping with loss

Having to face these challenges in an unrecognizable culture, outside of the military, can be alienating. The isolation of any veteran from society underpins their struggle to make sense of their service and leaves civilians to create their own narrative of what it means to serve.

As the senior assistant dean of Veteran Initiatives at the Columbia University School of General Studies, founder of a veteran service organization (Frontline Arts), professor of art and Narrative Medicine practitioner, and a Marine Corps veteran that transitioned into an advanced degree three months after returning home from Iraq, I can speak to the holistic support that veterans need, and how higher education can offer a transformative step into a lifelong journey of connection and transition. 

For example, we can look right in our own backyard at Columbia University to find a comprehensive approach to supporting veteran transition through the pursuit of higher education.

Transition as ‘a Jump Into the Abyss’

Service members joined the military for any number of reasons, and through rigorous training from day one, were indoctrinated to be a part of a very specific military culture. In the military, basic elements of life are simply controlled under an authoritarian-like system, for example, what you wear, how you shape your hair, how you address different ranks, etc. With this control also comes all-encompassing family support, health benefits, housing, financial literacy, etc.

Career trajectory, promotion and upward mobility within this hierarchical structure already exist for those willing to take it. Overall, there is a sense of common mission-oriented purpose shared among a team of like-minded members, who will have your back in tough times. Transitioning out of this enveloping system of support into a civilian culture where you have to fend for yourself is a culture shock that you are wholly unprepared for, whether you served two months or 20 years.

While some service members find the transition support they need, the predominant narrative is that a great deal of challenges comes with this transition. Moving from one culture to the other, whether self-chosen or forced, is a jump into the abyss. This can be compounded by dealing with traumatic experiences from time in service, trying to re-align a moral compass, caring for physical injury, or coping with betrayal.

While Veterans Affairs provides what they can in health services, disability compensation, educational and home-buyer benefits, it is overwhelmed with an incredible backlog. The immense difficulty of navigating the VA reported by veterans shows that the institution alone cannot solely fill the void created by the insurmountable loss of the tight-knit military structure. 

The shift of leaving behind all that supported you, or was supposed to support you, may feel like the earth giving out from under your feet. And with less than one percent of the nation’s population serving in the armed forces at any given time, and less than 10% of current adults as veterans, not many civilians understand what it means to serve. It is a feeling as if you are alone and don’t belong.

Over the years, especially post-9/11, this gaping hole of loss has given way to numerous veteran support organizations (VSO) and institutions filling in the void. From career to community building to health and wellness to familial support, these VSOs have taken on much of the burden of providing various platforms to assist in the transition. 

The issue is there are too many (some with better intentions than others), and veterans can feel lost trying to navigate the complex myriad of VSOs, simultaneously dealing with the VA, in addition to trying to find a job, all the while reconnecting with their community and re-discovering their purpose in life, with a possible disability. 

"Our American society is too strange for a veteran to process alone."


Overall, there is little cohesion to this complexity, leaving a veteran feeling lost and without guidance as to where to begin. The author and veteran Phil Klay is quoted as saying, “war is too strange to process alone.” I can add that our American society is too strange for a veteran to process alone.

What Columbia Does Differently

One space that has consistently provided a comprehensive consolidation of support for veteran transition is in higher education. In my job at Columbia, I not only assist the roughly 440 undergraduate student veterans on campus with a host of on-campus student veteran resources (and interact, in part, with the roughly 200 student veterans enrolled in graduate programs across campus), but I also witness, in part, the transition that students undertake. 

The School of General Studies provides opportunities for a diverse range of individuals no matter their age or background that feel similar about moving on from their prior life or institution to transition into Columbia. It can be a culture shock for many GS students, oftentimes resulting in an imposter syndrome of not feeling as if they belong.  

In addition to the thousands of students to whom GS provides transformational opportunities to transition into academia every semester, GS also enrolls more than three times the amount of student veterans than all other Ivy Leagues, combined. The overall environment fills the void by providing a similar mission-oriented common purpose, which is shared among a body of like-minded students, giving veterans a community to connect with.

"Columbia's School of General Studies enrolls more than three times the amount of student veterans than all other Ivy Leagues, combined."

This comprehensive support in higher education must come from a unified response among the many resources available for student veterans to battle the challenges of transitioning out of the military. At GS we understand that the tailored educational financial assistance, health and wellness services, student veteran-led groups, special interest, and community support, career services, mentoring support, and the platform to tell their stories are most effective when working in partnership with the VA, a host of VSOs and other support organizations, a national network of student veteran leadership, institutions of veteran and family health and wellness, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Defense, other educational institutions, and especially with everyone working in the veteran transition space within your own campus

Above all, peer connection, and the veteran’s ability to integrate with those current and of those that have gone before them, is an ultimate resource. These connections that we create at GS assist with the veteran support services, help veterans to look beyond a “suck-it-up” mentality, and ask for help if needed.

Next Steps to Help Others

In addition to GS, Columbia’s Center for Veteran Transition and Integration (CVTI) has harnessed the tools for student veteran success developed at GS and other higher education institutions as a lock-step phased curriculum for veterans to attain higher education, obtain the skills needed for academic success, and to find their career calling. These courses are offered as massive open online courses for any veteran or service member seeking higher education, at any institution.

Overall, the entire student veteran experience is addressed via a holistic transformational platform partnered between an accessible online curriculum teaching the skills to attain higher education, and an institution providing the student veteran experience in the company of similar students, all designed to help veterans find their community, their career, their voice, their purpose, and their own definition of success. A platform of education with the proper entities in place not only provides a transitional steppingstone for academic success, but it also develops next generational talent, social responsibility, and knowledge to change the world for the better.

The more an accessible educational opportunity for transition is provided, the more veterans can enter into the discourse of broader veteran issues. With the veteran community being a microcosm of American society, the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, politics, and thought, and the added experience from those that served in the military as part of classroom discourse greatly enriches our ability to understand who the veteran is and where they come from. 

"The more an accessible educational opportunity for transition is provided, the more veterans can enter into the discourse of broader veteran issues."

If this whole-veteran narrative isn’t given a platform to be told, the more the veteran (and the military from where they came) becomes a mystified system, either crafted as a single-veteran story or removed from civilian thought completely, making it that much harder for veterans to transition out of the service into a society.

A higher education space provides the opportunity for veterans to connect, transition, and tell their stories, so others can begin to build a capacity for the veteran narrative, and in turn build an informed capacity for support. The more society can engage with the less than 10% who own that narrative, the more we will understand who makes up our military, where they come from, how they are recruited and used, and the holistic opportunities we can provide them upon transitioning out of the service.


David Keefe

David Keefe is the Senior Assistant Dean of Veteran Initiatives at Columbia University School of General Studies and an alumnus of Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Program. In addition to supporting the student veteran transition into academia, his work and research are on exploring the veteran narrative and developing a connective art practice of creating transformational spaces to connect veterans and witnesses through craft-making and storytelling. He was recently awarded an Open Society Foundation Fellowship for his innovative practice with veterans through the arts. David Keefe served in the Marine Corps from 2001 – 2009 with a combat tour to Iraq in 2006 as a riverine scout.

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.