The transition from classroom to virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many student veterans, and the worries may not end with the spring semester.
Marine Corps veteran Travis Holt, 40, is getting ready to wrap up his first year in a master’s program for social work at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He summed up the virtual college experience he has had since March bluntly:
"It's been a nightmare,” he said. “I didn't sign up to do online schooling; I'm a classroom guy, I'm kind of an old school-type guy."
Holt’s discomfort learning on a screen is worsened by the fact that he lives in Crystal River, a rural part of Florida where he said internet access isn't great on a good day, let alone during this pandemic when most people are home trying to use it.
Now Holt works out of a makeshift office in his spare bedroom and said he struggles to get assignments done with a bad connection.
On top of that, he is an intern and program coordinator at the nonprofit Veterans Alternative, and is a husband and father to a 5-year-old daughter who is also attending school from home now.
"Just being a combat veteran and the trauma I've experienced and then going to school – that's a lot, period,” he said. “Then you throw in all of this COVID-19 madness and it's like this is insane right now, like my life is insane right now."
Students struggling financially
Holt isn't alone in feeling stressed by the disruptions. A recent survey from Student Veterans of America found about 90 percent of respondents say they're concerned COVID-19 will affect their education goals.
The survey was conducted the same week Congress passed a law to protect GI Bill benefits as schools switched to online learning. But SVA Chief of Staff William Hubbard said many student veterans are still under financial strain.
"A lot of these students are adults, they've got financial obligations, families to pay for, and that's not really what the GI Bill is set up to cover the cost of," he explained.
As of mid-March, one-third of survey respondents had lost jobs or were working less hours. More than 20 percent said they were concerned about buying groceries for their families and paying their mortgage or rent. Those numbers have likely gone up as more stay-at-home orders were implemented across the country.
Hubbard said he is also worried about graduating students who will enter a job market turned upside down by the coronavirus. He said SVA is making economic issues a priority.
"The key to that is really helping our student veterans figure out what their opportunities are in this new environment that we're all working in,” he said.
Hubbard said SVA is partnering with the Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and job recruiting sites to host a virtual economic opportunity summit for vets. The group continues to promote jobs at veteran-friendly companies on its website.
Knowing they’re not alone
He said SVA's other priority is preserving camaraderie among students unable to gather in-person at their local chapter meetings or campus vet centers.
"We're focused on developing different opportunities so they can stay connected to that community and avoid feeling a sense of isolation," Hubbard said, citing virtual meetings and volunteer work as examples.
Student veteran Travis Holt is also trying to create community through his role at Veterans Alternative. He recently hosted a video chat session for vets to vent frustrations and share tips with one another about coping with online learning.
Holt heard from other parents struggling to get their work done while they take care of their kids, so he hosted another session specifically on that issue. He said he is no expert but felt it was important to create a forum where people could talk about issues they're enduring.
“Sometimes just knowing you're not the only one going through it is helpful,” he said.
Another concern a veteran raised during the video chat on online learning was feeling guilty about reaching out to their school for help.
Many schools, like the University of South Florida, are extending withdrawal deadlines and allowing students to opt for their classes to be pass/fail as opposed to traditional grades that would affect their GPA as a way to mitigate COVID-19’s potential damage to their academic performance.
Holt said he's lucky to have understanding professors and encourages vets to communicate with their teachers if they need assistance as finals approach and summer courses begin.
“It can be hard to reach out and ask for help and admit that you're overwhelmed, but it's worth it," he said. It's important and it’s part of taking care of yourself.”
Most colleges and universities are already planning to host their summer programs virtually while some have cancelled them.
Holt is taking the summer off to spend time with his family. He tries not to worry about whether the coronavirus could force universities to remain online-only in the fall, saying student vets need to focus on the things they can control right now.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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