Eric Fretz showed up early, wearing a smile and a tan baseball cap. He emailed me upon his arrival — stating where exactly he was sitting — and he made sure to be accommodating, suggesting we move away from the noise of the coffee shop to ensure a clearer recording.
He must have picked up my nervous, slightly unsure demeanor, as he began to answer each of my questions before I had the chance to ask them. Fretz talked for nearly 45 minutes without interruption.
A faculty adviser — and previous member — of the University of Michigan Student Veteran Association, Fretz was one of many veterans on campus who shared with me their stories transitioning from military life to academia.
From conversations with several, a common thread emerged — that many at the University don’t know there is a large community of veterans on campus, made up of students and faculty much like Fretz, who have faced unpredictable challenges and welcomed numerous opportunities associated with military life.
Similarly, some of the veterans said people are also unaware of the lack of external awareness and naïveté these veterans often encounter when re-entering civilian life.
Yet if asked, these men and women will gladly share their stories, and they will arrive to the interview prepared and timely (in fact, with time to spare) — just like their military service taught them to.
Fretz first arrived on campus in 1985 on a Navy ROTC scholarship. After graduating four years later, he went into active duty for the Navy for 20 years. Upon returning to the University in 1998 to pursue a dual Ph.D. in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology, Fretz faced a lot of adversity. From being mobilized twice, to having two children, to managing other family circumstances, it took him 12 years to complete the program.
“I just wanted to serve,” Fretz said of his military aspirations.
Fretz said there are many struggles veterans have when adjusting to civilian student life.
“There’s a fascinating sort of cohesion and unity of purpose that is common to almost all (veterans),” he explained. “There’s this element in the military of trust and common purpose that’s very hard to replicate and find in the civilian world, and one of the things that vets report consistently that puts them most ill at ease, that gets them the most off-balance, is this lack of comradeship.”
“There’s that picture of this fully grown Adam Sandler in a tiny desk surrounded by tiny desks with tiny kids, and that one picture gets such a visceral response from the vets, because that’s how they feel,” Fretz said.
“They are so acutely aware that they are older and they have had these experiences and they have sort of changed their world view, and they behave differently, they understand accountability differently, they manage their time differently, their life priorities,” he added. “That extreme edge of youth has been forcibly scraped off them and they just feel that very acutely.”
Timothy Nellett, another veteran and program coordinator for UM's Peer Advisors for Veteran Education, said he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005. After four years in service, Nellett started going to college, first attending two different community colleges before transferring to the University. Nellett feels the best way to describe the student veteran community is by calling them the “non-traditional of the non-traditional.”
“To a person who has just been launching aircraft carriers off the deck of the JFK, or a person who has been trying not to get blown up by an IED, this is an extremely foreign environment,” Larson said, emphasizing the differences between student veterans and more “traditional” college students who are focused on Greek life or joining student organizations. “They feel very outside and alone.”
“Part of you wants to let it go,” Chen said. “But then another part of you is like, this is a huge part of my life, I have something to contribute. Sometimes it’s fighting between those two … At first it’s just like any other social identity, you’re trying to figure out your place within the University, you’re trying to figure out your place within society.”
Fretz also noted another significant issue: a liberal-leaning political climate generally associated with the University.
“It tends to be left-of-center and not particularly pro-military,” Fretz said. “They just feel like they’re not particularly understood, sometimes they feel like they’re treated with contempt … A lot of times they do feel excluded. It’s interesting, they’re not monolithically conservative, but they are monolithically respectful of their time in the military.”
One recent example of the conflicting military rhetoric on campus was the incident regarding the showing of “American Sniper” in April 2015. Students raised concern about the film’s anti-Islam images, while others, including veterans, said they felt students’ negative responses to the film were indicative of a lack of appreciation for their military service.
Cassie Michaels, now a University graduate, was enlisted in the Marine Corps prior to coming to the University. Michaels completed one semester of college at UM-Flint before enlisting, and one additional there while applying to transfer to the Ann Arbor campus after serving. Michaels was in her early 20s entering sophomore year, making her a few years older than her peers.
She echoed many of the sentiments of other veterans, such as feeling unaccustomed to campus life. In particular, she recounted a story about a class that had an iClicker question in lecture, and though the traditional freshmen and sophomores in the class had an iClicker with them, she didn’t have one and did not know what they were. She also failed her first assignment at the University, something that was also novel to her. Both instances, she said, led to her feeling behind and made her feel she did not align to the campus climate.
As part of an even smaller demographic on campus — female veteran students — Michaels said she felt challenged and alone. Though she started going to SVA meetings upon arriving to campus, she found she was the only female there.
“We may have had the same experiences while in the military, but they still wouldn’t be the same because they would be male and I would be female,” Michaels said. “I just didn’t feel like my experiences would be valid.”
Dentistry junior Alyssa Carrillo, who was a dental lab technician in the Air Force for four years before beginning college in fall 2013, said her troubles identifying with fellow veterans also stemmed from there being so few females who were in the military on campus. Her own experiences now contribute to much of her work as a peer adviser in the Office of New Student Programs, where she often reaches out to other female veterans.
Along with these challenged, veterans said the transition veterans have to make from military life to academia is also a significant change. Fretz, for example, transitioned between life as an ROTC student, receiving another bachelor’s degree while serving time in active duty and getting a Master’s during his time as a reservist.
Fretz said he experienced a cultural mismatch on a number of occasions. For example, in graduate school, per requests from his professors, he was doing multiple projects at once, often while sacrificing his school work. He said he had a military mindset that his professors were similar to his senior officers, and that they must have had good, important reasoning behind giving him so much work.
He added that he has found it interesting interacting with veterans who are similar to how he was, from a faculty member perspective now saying he understands his students’ natural tendency to exhibit respect toward authority figures. However, he tells them that in a university setting, it is preferred they interact with their professors in a way that is usually much different from their senior officers.
Graduate student Aaron Silver, president of the Ross School of Business Armed Forces Association, said he came to the University to pursue a master’s degree in business following five years as an active-duty artillery officer. During his time in the military, Silver was primarily stationed in Germany but also had two deployments overseas.
“I think all of those that go through the transition experience a little bit of what I call a culture whiplash,” Silver said. “The military is a lifestyle and to some degree, you’re indoctrinated. It’s a culture with certain norms and mores and expectations and shared beliefs and shared values, and when you leave that culture, life is different.”
Mental health misconceptions
The veterans interviewed also talked extensively about misconceptions attached to veteran stability.
Larson echoed Fretz’s sentiments and said veteran students come back from combat to a — albeit unintentional — naïveté about their experiences on campus.
“Two months ago, or a year ago, they were in charge of multi-million-dollar aircraft, they were in charge of keeping other people safe, they were in charge of other people’s well-being as an enlisted NCO,” Larson said. “And they come to this campus and nobody gets it — nobody gets it.”
Nellett recounted a situation where a student once found out how old he was — older than most of the other students in the class — and asked him what he had been doing with his life, inappropriately insinuating that, because he was older, he must have been taking time off or not taking school seriously. When the student discovered Nellett was in the military, she simply responded, “Please don’t kill me.”
“There are some people out there that are like that and create more of a divide than there needs to be, and it mostly stems from a place of ignorance,” Nellett said. “I really don’t think that most of the time it’s coming from a place of malicious intent — it’s really a lack of awareness or understanding.”
While on campus, Michaels said she had feelings of anxiety in crowded lecture halls, nightmares and struggled in high-pressure situations — all of which she said are symptoms of her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I may jump and flinch whenever I hear a loud noise, or I may feel panicked when I’m in an enclosed area with a lot of people, but you just have to trust me that I’ve got this,” Michaels said. “When people think of veterans, they automatically think of this broken person who can’t function in society, and I think that in order to change that, the veterans that are doing well and becoming these really successful, functional citizens, they need to identify themselves as veterans … And the reason why they don’t is because of the stigma.”
Because people experience things differently, veterans stressed that traditional students should not generalize student veterans in the same way student veterans should not generalize the student population as ignorant of the military experience.
“Like any other social identity, we come with our stereotypes, we come with the stigmas that are attached to it,” Chen said.
Larson added that veterans tend to have their own culture that would be beneficial to campus diversity — something Fretz echoed — that could improve other students’ misunderstandings.
“From the veteran’s perspective, they find it puzzling and frustrating that the mental health thing is always made salient,” Fretz said. “You never know what journey people are on, and so you shouldn’t discount them — everybody has something to teach here.”
Among the challenges, many resources are also available at the University, including several led by veterans.
The Student Veterans Assistance Program, run out of the Office of New Student Programs, has goals similar to those of student veteran organizations on campus in ensuring veteran students have the resources necessary to be successful in their academic, professional and social careers at the University and beyond.
In his work, Larson said he is able to reduce misconceptions students have about what the military does, honor veterans’ sacrifice and service and help them use their military-instilled skills in conjunction with a UM education, all in an attempt to improve the military-to-academia culture shock that he had seen in previous years.
“Students came out of the military with … different kind of language, different kind of skillsets, different kind of expectations,” Larson said. “And when they got to campus, they found themselves in a different cultural environment than what they were used to.”
According to Larson, there are about 345 veteran students on campus. The count is estimated because not every student veteran entering the University wants to be identified with the veteran population. Many decide they no longer want to be associated with their time in the military, while others hope to avoid the judgment or stigma of being a veteran.
Though the argument could be made this is a relatively small community on a campus with more than 43,000 students, Larson said it is crucial to have efforts that address veterans simply because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Nellett also currently gives back as a program coordinator for Peer Advisors for Veteran Education, which was started at UM Depression Center in collaboration with Military Support Programs and Networks.
“Connectedness to campus and getting involved with something and finding your support group, so to speak, can be really effective and is really shown to be effective for keeping students going to school year after year and graduating,” Nellett said.
Silver said he thinks there is opportunity for traditional students to recognize the importance of the veteran experience, and join a dialogue that sheds positive light on the community.
“We have a shared experience that is very unique in the U.S.,” Silver said. “Less than one percent of the U.S. population actually serves in the military, and the proportion of those that get out and decide to pursue higher education is underrepresented. A lot of the veterans have made a very big commitment to the country and a big sacrifice, so I think as good citizens we owe it to the community to help them achieve success after the military.”
“I really feel like it developed me in ways that have made me successful now, or have opened up doors for me,” Silver said, furthering his sentiments. “My experience may have been different than the typical post-undergraduate experience, but strong and good for me.”
Michaels had similar thoughts, and said she encourages open discussion about her time in the military because she does not want colleagues walking on eggshells around her. That’s common, she said, for a campus full of students that often sees veterans as “others,” and not much more.
But, as Michaels puts it, “I am not the war.”