Current and former military personnel who are University of Michigan undergraduate students discussed their experiences in the armed forces as part of the school’s Veterans Week programming at a panel discussion held Wednesday.

Philip Larson, program director of Veteran and Military Services, said there are approximately 415 veteran or military students on the Ann Arbor campus. About 130 of them are undergraduates. Larson also said it’s not always easy to tell if a student has military experience.

“Our veteran military students on campus are a diverse mix who have diverse interests and majors and likes, political views, hairstyles, beard styles,” Larson said. “We’re not a monolith by any stretch of imagination.”

U-M Flint senior Michael Caster spoke about his experience in the military as a civil affairs specialist in the Army Reserve. Caster traveled to countries where he acted as a diplomat for the military.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with a variety of people in my job, of different races and ethnicities and cultures that really are starting to make up and expand a diversity in the military itself,” Caster said.

LSA senior Lydia Pinkham, who was previously in the Coast Guard, also noted the different types of people who serve in the military. 

“When I started serving, I was making friends with people from all over the country and all different backgrounds — educational, economic backgrounds — and got to be friends and got to know so many different people, and have this weird brother-sisterhood connection that you don’t share with other people,” Pinkham said.

LSA junior Joel Collin served in the Air Force for 10 years. Collin talked about how those with military experience have unique perspectives.

“We look through a different lens,” Collin said. “We see a more big picture concept of events of the world. One thing from the military you learn is: observe before you act. So you take a lot of that time just listening to people and hearing what they have to say.” 

The panelist talked about their transitions from the military to a higher educational institution, noting that the application process looked different from someone applying right out of high school. 

Caster recalled having trouble finding information for people from the military looking to go to college.

“Sometimes that information doesn’t get pushed out,” Caster said. “I remember I was knocking on doors, sending out emails, I was calling, trying to find out any information.”

Pinkham said finances can be a barrier for many in the military applying and attending a university. 

“Financial standing is really important to the vet community and making students aware of every possible financial support they might have access to, even outside of the financial aid office, whether it be a grandmaster list of scholarships that veterans are eligible for, that would go a long way,” Pinkham said.

The panelists also described how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives. Pinkham talked about how the stress of the pandemic is impacting college students.

“Most of us have already been through experiences in life that are probably more stressful than anything else we’ll experience unless we have kids,” Pinkham said. “So the handling of stress is something we’re prepared for.”

Collin noted that the military prepared him to bounce back from difficulties.

“I would definitely say the military was great at teaching resilience,” Collin said. “It doesn’t matter how many times you get hit, you don’t have a choice. You have to get back up because it’s not just you, other people rely on you.”

Daily News Contributor Heather Rooney can be reached at herooney@umich.edu

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