When Dan Withrow left the Army in 2017 after six years of service in the airborne infantry, he was unsure of what to do next.
“I had an identity crisis,” he said. “I had a specific set of skills, and I felt like I had value, but then none of those skills translated to any jobs. I feel like I became a veteran statistic I never thought I was going to be.”
So, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Withrow decided to take advantage of the time and try to rediscover what he wanted for his post-military career.
He left Flint, Michigan in July 2020 and traveled to 11 states, eventually making it to Utah where he enrolled at Salt Lake Community College as a video production major last fall.
“I love traveling, learning and experiencing new things,” Withrow said. “I am still searching for my identity, but SLCC has definitely made me feel comfortable, with a friendly environment with both students and faculty.”
For other veterans, the pandemic’s effects on school were more pronounced. Jefferson Norrell, an Army veteran and general studies major, said the shift to online classes delayed his plans to transfer to the University of Utah’s physical therapy program. He hopes to finally transfer this fall.
“I had numerous technology problems, and the lack of in-person classes made it difficult for me to learn, given my learning style,’” Norrell said. “I’ve been so happy to return back to class that it’s been a noticeable difference in my grades from online learning to in-person.”
Dr. Michael Foster, a contracted employee from the Department of Veteran Affairs who leads the college’s VetSuccess program, echoed Norrell’s points.
“For veterans, online learning just didn’t work well for them, so many are taking breaks until they’re ready to return,” Foster said. “Unemployment is in the record lows, so a lot of veterans are working and saving their GI Bill until things return to whatever normal looks like.”
Prior to the pandemic, veterans were required to take at least one in-person class to be eligible for a full housing stipend. But when the pandemic hit, Congress passed legislation that allowed veterans who were forced into remote classes to receive full benefits. That bill, extended by the REMOTE Act in December 2021, expired on June 1. Foster said he believes this will bring veterans back into the classroom.
“I expect enrollment to get back to what it was,” he said. “Veterans want to come back to class.”
As more veterans return to the classroom, Jennifer Brown, a mentor at SLCC and former Army soldier, expressed keenness to help. “I love helping people, so anytime I can invest myself in such a way that a person’s life is improved is top notch for me, absolutely,” Brown said.
Programs at the college, like VetSuccess and Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, connect veterans to VA resources and help them settle into life on campus – processes which Foster said are crucial for transitioning veterans.
“When you’re ready to leave the military, you go through what they call transition assistance services,” Foster said. “This is where they cram a whole bunch of information to you in a really short span of time and all you want to do is go home. A lot of the time veterans don’t know what they’re entitled to.”
Mahktar Fall, an Army veteran and video and radio production major, said he visits Veterans Services to ask about academic opportunities and resources.
“I mostly use [Veterans Services] for any question I have regarding my field of study,” Fall said, “or anything related to grants and scholarships some veterans receive; and for some resources around Salt Lake City.”
But veterans don’t always seek help when they return to school, Brown said, which presents an issue when trying to help.
“Veterans are very eyes down, boots forward, A-to-B type students,” she said. “There is absolutely a stigma to showing up to a place like SLCC or any university and [admit that you] have no idea why [you’re] here. ‘The military told me that I should go to college when I get out, but I have no idea what I want to do or where I want to go.’”
This stigma among veterans, that asking for help is unnecessary, is something that advisors in Veterans Services hope to change at the school through their programs and mentors available.
“Just come and talk to anyone there and see what kind of support you might need,” Foster said addressing veterans. “The ball is in your court.”
For more information about Veterans Services and the programs offered, visit the services’ webpage.