From combat to classroom: the challenges and perks of being a student-veteran

Sep 19, 2019

College students have settled in for the fall semester and among them are many who first served in the U.S. military. When veterans enter college, they bring a unique perspective while also facing unique challenges. Most Western New York colleges and universities either have some form of veterans office, student veteran organization or provide links to services. WBFO visited one local college to learn more about veterans on campus.

Buffalo State College has a Student Veterans Association, which currently hosts a lounge in the basement level of the Campbell Student Union. It includes a table and chairs, couches, work spaces and other comforts and conveniences.

From left to right, Joe Wilson, Lewis Williams and Paul Pfeil are members of the Student Veterans Association at Buffalo State College.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

For Paul Pfeil, a disabled veteran who is studying dietetics, nutrition and communications at Buffalo State, it's a much-appreciated space he and fellow veterans may call their own, away from the other students passing through the student union.

"When I'm out on the campus, I don't relate to people unless it's a professor," Pfeil said. "It's nice to have a place where we don't have all the noise and the commotion going on. We don't have all the silliness that's going on. We can actually come in here and study. We have, I think, three computers in here and we're looking to get a fourth. We have work areas, we have a place where you can eat, we have a microwave, and we're getting donations of food now through the Food Bank."

Lewis Williams, a senior majoring in political science, is the Buffalo State SVA's new president. He spent three years in the Army, including nine months of combat duty in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. He admits that after living in a realm of structure and everyday tasks planned for him, being on his own in a college setting would be a challenge.

"I was nervous because I wanted support getting back into the swing of homework and getting projects and studying," he said. "Obviously I had a job in the military, but it's not like high school where you have homework and things like that. I was nervous at first but I fit right in. I'm glad I learned on the fly."

Some veterans don't necessarily feel like they fit. Pfeil admitted that, revealing that often times in class, it's difficult to be among younger students who have plenty of opinions but not the worldly experience he gained while serving in support of Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm.

"It was quite an adjustment, especially being around young students. Their opinions on politics and communication, and the way they talk to teachers... if my son said things that they say, it wouldn't be alright," Pfeil said. "I've learned to have to keep my mouth shut more often than not, especially with my political views. I find that they don't really mesh with politics of student life on this campus. But that's OK."

Joe Wilson, a junior criminal justice major, was in the Army for six years followed by the National Guard for three years. He was deployed to Iraq twice. He transferred to Buffalo State after studying at Erie Community College. He, too, noted the age difference and how it shapes how those in the classroom look at events.

"I remember 9/11. I was in high school. I actually enlisted on the one-year anniversary of it," said Wilson. "Most of the people I go to class with are learning about it as a historical event, not something they lived through."

For all the differences, there are also many benefits.

"With this club, you have opportunities like early registration. You get to register for your class, be the first one," said Williams. "You get free parking permits. We have a new work-study that was introduced last semester. It's good. It's really good."

Williams also noted that through the Department of Veterans Affairs, student-veterans are granted stipends each semester for textbook purchases. He estimated a stipend of about $600 for his last semester.

Getting people to join, however, is the challenge. Williams estimated no more than three dozen members of the SVA, while about 350 veterans are enrolled at Buffalo State. Wilson admits he found the organization through "dumb luck" but immediately felt welcomed and kept coming back.

Convincing others to join SVA is not necessarily as easy.

"I think with a lot of them - I'm an active VFW member as well and I've talked to a lot of guys my age or younger - a lot of them, their mental health isn't there. They don't want to be reminded of some of the stuff they have done," Wilson said.

He also pointed to the challenge of getting the word out around campus.

"Here, I went through both the actual orientation for transfer students and I did the veterans' one. There is no mention during the actual transfer student one that this group even exists," he added. "I only found out about it or even heard it, initially, when I went to the veteran one, which is organized specially for us as a smaller group."

The ability to network among fellow veterans proved to be a lifesaving moment last year, according to Pfeil, who said peers were able to successfully talk a fellow veteran out of attempting suicide.

"Most of us, we've created that brother bond that we've all been accustomed to when we were in the military," he said. "For me, it's nice to have that bond. I miss that. Being away from the military for so long, it's wonderful to have some people that I can actually relate to."

(WBFO, when conducting an online check, found that student veteran offices, associations or veteran service information links are available at most college campuses in the Buffalo-Niagara region, including but not limited to: Buffalo State, Canisius, D'Youville, Daemen, Medaille, Niagara, St. Bonaventure University and the University at Buffalo.)