Military students reflect on college experience, graduation


An out of focus soldier salutes an American flag. Graduating veteran students find that the military has offered them worthwhile experiences during the college process. (Getty Image)

By Evan Mellon, News Reporter

DeKALB – Many NIU students go through the experience of joining clubs and exploring new opportunities, but for graduating students in the military, the college experience is wholly unique.

According to NIU’s Military and Veteran Services, NIU has approximately 850 military or veteran students on campus. These students have their own distinct challenges.

Giovanni Arias, a senior operations and information management major, enlisted in the National Guard to help pay for college. Arias was deployed to Afghanistan in 2019 but later faced significant difficulties after returning to NIU.

“I left in 2019 and came back in 2020, so everyone who I knew was gone when I came back, and then on top of that it was COVID, so I couldn’t see anybody,” Arias said. “So, coming back from that deployment was kind of rough.”

Senior elementary education major Heather Turner, whose parents both served in the Army, joined the Army for education benefits and to get a job in law enforcement at an earlier age. However, Turner later went to NIU after being drawn to the field of education.

“I really like working with the public and helping people, and I found that as a police officer I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of that,” Turner said. “In education, I feel like that is the way we can best serve the public, because with an excellent education you can do anything.”

While going to NIU allowed Turner to pursue her passion, she also felt that being a veteran made her college experience different from most other students.

“It’s hard to get that college experience since I’m nearly 40 and I’m in a cohort with mostly 20-year-olds,” Turner said. “There’s that meme with Billy Madison where he’s sitting at the kindergarten table and that still rings true to being a veteran in college, especially one who doesn’t take advantage of their education benefits for whatever reason until later on.”

Derek Bos, a senior public health major, enlisted in the National Guard so he could afford to attend college and found that managing student life and service could be a struggle.

“A big thing for me is I procrastinate and do a lot of my work on the weekends,” Bos said. “So for me, my service obligation will fall on a weekend so that’s bad for me because that’s when I do my homework.”

Despite the difficulties, many of the graduating service members felt that their time in the military was well spent.

Arias said his experience balancing both the National Guard and NIU taught him time management and communication skills he wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

“Being able to be proactive and think ahead of time and try to organize myself, talking to professors and team members ahead of time, I think really helped even if it was a pain,” Arias said. “I feel like there are a lot of students who really aren’t good at doing that.”

Turner also said her time serving in the Army gave her experiences that she can utilize in her future career as an educator.

“It gave me a more worldly view on things, especially in the education world where you are working with a diverse group of people on a regular basis,” Turner said. “It really helped me to get different perspectives from people of different backgrounds.”

According to Bos, the financial benefits of serving is part of what’s allowing him to attend UIC after graduation to obtain his master’s in public health so he can learn to form occupational or environmental health policy at the state or federal level.

“It’s going to sound corny, but if you want it to happen, you can make it happen, social determinants aside,” Bos said. “I wanted to go to school, I wanted to set up a pretty good life for myself, so even though going through basic (training) and actually serving definitely sucks, like it has pros to it and definitely cons, but knowing I was doing this to better myself willed me to keep a good head about it.”

For many of these students, the services of the Military Veteran Student Center allow them to gain access to resources, guidance, financial aid and more to help accommodate them at NIU.

“The Military Veteran Student Center is fantastic,” Turner said. “I think NIU as a whole could do more to support that office and provide the full- time staff in order to adequately serve military and veteran students on campus. I think supporting that department would really benefit us.”