Chanel Powell served five years in the Army National Guard, including one in Iraq, before retiring from the military and returning to college to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.
Mr. Powell was a prominent figure in the National Guard. She was the only black and the only woman in her platoon of over 300 of her fellow soldiers.
When my military contract ended in 2020, I found it difficult to adjust to civilian life, especially when dealing with people my age who were not in the military.
“It was really hard for me to want to participate because I didn’t know where I fit in,” she said.
For veterans, the challenge of readjusting to civilian life is common. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Employment Toolkit, they can include difficult relationships with others, family reunification, living in a civilian community, and adjusting to a less structured lifestyle.
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An additional layer awaits veterans entering higher education after military service.
“It’s a really difficult transition to go back to higher education,” Powell said. “There are a lot of gears you have to shift, from your familiar culture to your daily life. In the military, you wake up and you are pretty much told what to do, you know what to do and you do it.”
Unlike the typical college student, most veteran students are between the ages of 24 and 40, are more likely to be married and have dependents, according to the VA.
Powell, 26, first entered Long Island University in 2014 and struggled academically.
“It was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t taken seriously,” she said.
She lacked structure in her life and felt she could not live without it, so she decided to take a leave of absence from college and enlist in the National Guard.
Ms. Powell didn’t want to join the military until she struggled in college, and because no one in her family had ever served in the military, she had no frame of reference.
She began serving in the National Guard in 2015 as a paralegal specialist. When she was deployed to Iraq in 2016, she was part of a team that included mostly Iraqi nationals, working as an indoor electrician and a carpenter building small homes.
During his last two years of service in the United States, Powell endeavored to earn a BA in Political Science from the University of Buffalo.
In May, she received her Juris Doctor degree from UB, becoming the first person in her family to earn a graduate degree.
Powell served as president of the First Generation Law Students Association while he was a law student at UB.
A national survey by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Studies found that 61.8% of veteran students are first-generation college students, compared to 42.8% of non-veteran students.
“My motto has always been ‘first but not last,'” she said.
coping with trauma
Powell was the only female in the platoon. She tried to keep up with her teammates so as not to appear less competent at her job.
She said being the only woman doesn’t come with as many challenges as being the only black on a team of all white men. She would sometimes jokingly suggest that her teammates should own slaves to ease their workload.
The joke made her uncomfortable. When she tried to talk to them, she felt ignored, including by her boss.
“When you are abroad, you can never expect the people who are supposed to support you, your comrades-in-arms, not to support you.”
Her base in Iraq came under frequent artillery fire during her years there, forcing Powell to spend most of her time in a concrete bunker with the banging and rattling of explosions outside.
Going to the VA was a great starting point to help her begin to heal from the trauma she experienced. Although she is receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration, she is still having trouble coping with her.
A study published in the peer-reviewed bimonthly General Hospital Psychiatry found that veteran students had significantly higher prevalence of depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation while in college.
pay for college
For Powell, it was difficult to pinpoint what financial benefits would be available to cover college costs until he met with UB’s veteran financial aid expert. She was able to use benefits from her post-9/11 GI bill and vocational rehabilitation to cover most of her expenses.
The GI bill will help pay school and job training costs for the children of veterans who served in the military after 9/11, or eligible veterans or dependents whose benefits have been transferred from the military. The GI bill covers tuition, fees, housing, books and supplies, and even transportation from rural areas to school.
Of the 19,449 New York veterans participating in the VA’s education benefit program, 15,160 received benefits from the post-9/11 GI bill, according to the VA’s 2022 Annual Benefits Report.
Despite the aid, “my experience hasn’t always been great,” said Benjamin Redfield, a sophomore in psychology at UB who served in the National Guard for 13 years and also benefited from the GI bill.
When Redfield tried to get veterans’ education benefits at UB, he said he “basically lived” at UB’s Veterans Affairs Service. At Erie Community College, where he started college, the process wasn’t too difficult, he said.
Redfield provided a helping hand to the UB Veterans Services program, which matches veteran students with those who have been with UB for some time and provides guidance in making college career decisions.
He realized another major challenge veterans face in obtaining benefits.
“Many veterans don’t want to be associated with the military after some time (after serving) and feel uncomfortable being identified as a veteran,” he said, which can make it difficult to find out what the benefits are.
Powell wants to find more veterans and help them get the education and benefits they deserve.
“I’m so grateful for what I’ve learned from my experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “But I’m very happy that I’ve done my time and it’s over because I personally feel that I can do more for veterans outside the military than I did when I was in the military.”
When Ms. Powell returned to civilian life, she again felt privileged as she interacted with peers with different life experiences.
Her resident advisor finally persuaded her to come out of the room, and UB Veterans Services Director Dan Ryan urged her to join the on-campus Veterans Students Association. It made her feel connected to the campus.
Powell will join Nixon Peabody in the fall as a privacy and cybersecurity officer. She has been an intern at her law firm for the past two years and is studying for the state bar exam.
She feels renewed strength and excitement.
“You can start doing what you wanted to do when you were younger,” she said. “The transition from the military to higher education can look different for everyone, but one thing remains the same: knowing you have space and a sense of community can make a big difference to the experience.”
Please contact AJ Franklin at email@example.com.