Editor’s Note: In our recent reporting about the veteran experience in higher education, Meg Mitcham’s name kept coming up. The former Army combat medic is director of veterans programs at the American Council on Education, where she helps colleges and universities learn how to serve the veterans in their classrooms. Before that, she was a student veteran herself.
In an interview, Mitcham told PIN about her own rocky trip through college.
You had a very brief transition period, right?
I came home from Iraq in July of 2006, and I was boots-on-ground on campus [at Penn State] in August, which gave me very little time to shift from a combat deployment into my civilian mission, so to speak.
How did you spend that brief transition period?
I had to go through the Transition Assistance Program that the Army offers — a lot of PowerPoint presentations on VA benefits; having to go turn in all of your gear to make sure that you didn’t lose anything that the Army issued to you; going through your medical out-processing and your dental out-processing. At the same time, [I was] going through all of my post-deployment out-processing — where the Army made sure that I didn’t have any mental health concerns related to my deployment and that I came back with all my fingers and toes. All of that happened in about a matter of two weeks.
I found an apartment (in State College, Penn.), filed my Montgomery GI bill benefits, found a job, went back home — my parents lived in the Chicago area — bought some furniture to fill the apartment I had just found, then turned around and drove right back down to campus. I think three days later, after my parents helped me move in, was the first day of class.
You didn’t want a little down time?
I have a lot of friends who chose to go that route — who wanted to take a break and needed to take a break. Every veteran is different and different veterans are going to transition in different ways. My transition was so quick because one of the things that I did was waive my right to stay [on active duty] for an additional six months for transition. I made the choice to get out quickly.
So, first day of school …
Day one on campus was interesting. First of all, I had to pick out what to wear — that was a change of pace [from military life].
Campus life is much less structured than military life. I had already gone and walked around campus to find where all of my classes were. I made myself a little map so that I knew how to get from class to class and how much time I had to get there.
I remember calling my mother in between my second and third class of the day. I said, “So what do I do now? I have an hour and a half. What do I do?” My mom sort of laughed and said, “Well, most students go and sit on the quad or they go get lunch or they, you know, meet with friends. What are you going to do?”
I remember saying to my mom, “Iraq was easier than this. I was trained for that, and I knew what to do. It was instinct — I reacted.” Mom sort of laughed and said, “Meg, you survived Iraq. You survived bombs and bullets. You saved lives. You can do this. And by the way, you’re not coming home.” And she hung up the phone on me.
I started getting more and more involved on campus. I worked at Penn State’s Veterans Outreach office, which was incredibly beneficial because it instantly gave me a peer group of veterans who could support me and who I could support. And it put a little bit of money in my pocket for pizza.
I also got involved in some student organizations that were not veteran related. I got involved in a leadership group and a service learning group. That really helped me maintain my sense of leadership and my sense of community service that I valued so much in my military training. It also helped me interact with non-veterans, a vital piece of my transition.
And really, no matter what campus we’re talking about, it’s mostly non-veterans — and very young non-veterans at that. Many of the student veterans we’ve spoken with remember lacking patience with those students during the first days and weeks in the classroom.
[Laughs] Sure. I was nicknamed “Staff Sergeant Meg.” The first week of class I was sitting in this huge lecture hall full of freshman — full of 18-year-old freshman. Keep in mind I was 23 or 24 at the time. Many of them showed up in their pajamas, which blew my mind. I will never understand that. And there was a group of students that was sitting behind me in the middle of this professor’s lecture who could not for the life of them put down their phones and stop talking to each other.
In the middle of class I stood up, turned around and looked at them and said, “Look, if you don’t want to hear what he has to say, get out, because the rest of us do.”
I turned around and I sat back down and the professor almost beamed with this sense of “Finally, someone respects me.” Of course all of the students gave me this look, “Who the heck do you think you are, lady?” But a student from across the lecture hall walked up to me afterwords and said, “So what branch of service?” He was a Navy veteran. So there you go.
That class was really hard for me for another of reason though. It was a lecture hall where you enter from the back of the classroom and walk down a series of steps, which meant that there was no way for me to be sure that I had an eye on both my lecture and every entrance to the room. That was really distracting for me at the time. I was still in a mentality of high-tempo operations and paying attention to every little thing that went on. I found myself shifting attention between class and what was coming through the door — especially when students were late, which is another thing that I never understood. On time is late in the military. If you’re not there early, you’re not there at all, so it’s those kinds of things you have to adjust to.
I never understood wearing pajamas to class and being late.
Well, right. They did have their makeup done, I noticed. Which, again, what?
What about faculty? Were they supportive?
To be honest, I had a dream experience. I could not have asked for more supportive faculty. Every time the semester started, I had to walk up to each of my faculty members and say I still serve [as a reservist] and there may be some Fridays where I have to drill, that I will have to miss class or I will be late. All of my faculty bent over backwards to work with me to make sure if there was a test on one of those Fridays that I could take it early or to make sure that if I was missing class, it wasn’t an issue and that I was able to complete my work.
I actually had one professor who was a former Marine Corps public affairs officer. That was a sweet deal, because he completely understood everything. I had a number of faculty members who invited me to guest lecture. It was really, really exciting that my faculty were not only willing to work with me when I had concerns, but also willing to include me in the discussion and make my voice a voice on campus.
At some point you weren’t having only scheduling problems, though.
So, yes, you almost have to fast-forward to the end of my collegiate career to get to that point in my story. The military does a very good job of explaining to you the signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress and other invisible injuries you may face due to your combat experiences.
I was acutely aware of signs and symptoms; I knew what I needed to look for. I felt like I was talking about my experiences with friends and family — I’m a very very open person — and I thought: “If I just keep talking about it, I’m gonna be fine. I’m not noticing any signs and symptoms in myself, and if I do, I’ll deal with it.”
So fast-forward to the end of my academic career and that last semester. I had just come back from an internship in Washington, D.C., and I had four courses to pass to graduate, and it was time to find a job.
But it was 2008 and the economy had tanked. The pressures of another transition and trying to figure out where I was going to be started to really impact my mental health. I started to exhibit some significant signs and symptoms. I was the last person to notice any of it, but a lot of my friends and my family started pointing things out.
I was still in the reserves and one of my soldiers sat me down and said, “I think it would be to the benefit of this unit and to yourself for you to go get checked out.” I sort of just kept pushing things off — “I drink this much because I’m in COLLEGE, this is what college kids DO. And I’m having problems sleeping, well it’s because I’m up studying and I’m thinking about my classes. Then I’m sleeping in and MISSING classes — it sort of spiraled downward and I couldn’t get myself out of it.
Eventually I ended up at the VA hospital late one evening. One of the first things I said to the doctor was, “You can’t admit me, I have class tomorrow. I have to go back to school. I need to graduate.”
And the doctor said, “You’re not going to graduate on THIS path, so why don’t we work with your school, and see if we can work with your instructors, so that you can focus on your mental health, and you can graduate.”
I agreed with the doctor that I needed to get some help. So I stayed in the hospital and I made a call to my academic guidance counselor the next day when I was sort of out of my fog. It was Jamie Perry, one of the academic advisers in Penn State’s College of Communications. He probably saved my life. He had been my academic adviser my entire career. I only know that Jamie sent out emails to all of my professors. And I know that all of my professors then responded to me with “Whatever you need; we will get this done.”
I think I was still taking my final tests the day I walked across the stage; I know I was turning in final papers the night before. But everybody truly bent over backwards to ensure that I could focus on my mental health and graduate on time.
How long were you in the hospital?
About three days in the hospital, and then I took another week off to go home and spend some time with my family.
You were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then what?
I needed to sit down and start thinking about what was really affecting me and how to address that. Then I could turn around and focus on school. There are so many people out there — not just at your institution of higher education, but in the community and in the employment world who are willing to help you. If you just focus on yourself and get the help, you can do this.
I’ve heard from veterans who say, “Why only focus on the veterans who struggle?” And I suppose this is one of those stories. But you came out of it, and it’s true than many student veterans don’t struggle at all — quite the opposite.
It’s important to understand that the veteran population is as diverse as the American population. We all come from different backgrounds. We serve in different branches of service. We have different occupations for those branches of service. We get stationed at different units across the country and the globe. We get sent on different deployments. We have different experiences on those deployments. We have different reactions to those experiences. We come home to different support services. We make different choices on how we’re going to transition. Which means that we’re all very, very different.
I let my school know that I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and that I was going to need some assistance, and not once did one of them say, “Oh, gosh, is she gonna go running across campus with a weapon?” Not once.
Of course, yes, you hear the sensationalized horror stories. I think it’s also important to recognize that post-traumatic stress is not a veteran-specific illness. There are so many reasons that someone might end up diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. So, this isn’t necessarily a new thing that America is facing.
Here’s more from Meg Mitcham, who told her story in a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs video:
The American Council on Education, where Mitcham is Director of Veterans Programs, has several resources for schools on student veteran needs and services, including their toolkit for veteran friendly institutions.
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