Degree Interrupted: A Veteran Transitions To Student Life

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This is the third essay of our three-part series, “Degree Interrupted,” in which Youth Radio reporter Brooke Reotutar interviewed college students who had non-traditional paths to higher education. Today’s story comes from Matt Stowe, a veteran, and student at California State University San Marcos.

Transitioning back to civilian life and college after my time in the Marines was a culture shock at first. During my service, I spent five years as a rifleman and was deployed to Afghanistan and the Western Pacific twice. Once my term was over, I had to retrain myself to be a student and civilian again.

Joining the military right out of high school was the most natural path for me. My dad was a marine and I always admired him for it. My years in the service allowed me to contribute something valuable to society and gave me time to think about what I wanted to become.

I quickly rose to a leadership position and found myself training other marines how to survive in combat. At the age of 20, I had the lives and safety of others in my hands. As that fact truly dawned on me, it gave me a sense of urgency. It was real.

Once I finished my term, I knew I wanted to pursue my undergraduate degree. As part of my veteran perks, I received 36 months of benefits for education through the G.I. Bill. But as excited as I was to attend college, I didn’t know if I was ready to be a student. Flipping that switch from “marine” to “college kid” can be tricky.

Simple things like choosing the right classes, finding insurance and basic “adulting” skills posed a challenge since I never had to worry about any of those factors living on base. I realized that although those logistical factors were tough, the training I received from the Marines prepared me to be a strong student and employee.

I came into my classes and the workforce instilled with a sense of value for authority — both listening to authority figures and being one. Because of this, I excelled in both the classroom and in my job.

Currently, I attend California State University San Marcos and work in the Veterans Affairs Office at Palomar College. I felt compelled to help younger veterans who experience the same challenges I did in regards to making the transition.

In retrospect, taking this different path gave me the character and discipline I needed and provided the capacity to fulfill my goals. One thing you learn in the military from day one is that life isn’t all about you. You are responsible for a mission and ensuring the people to your right and left are taken care of.

I carry that mentality with me and strive to make a positive impact on my community.


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