‘It’s been a nightmare’: Veteran students face unique challenges with online college courses

The transition from classroom to virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for many veteran students, and the worries won’t end with the spring semester.

Marine Corps veteran Travis Holt, 40, is completing his first year in a master’s degree in social work program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. This has been a year that has been deeply marked by the coronavirus epidemic. In March, the university canceled in-person classes and moved all classes online.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Holt said. “I didn’t sign up to study online; I’m a class guy, I’m a bit of an old school guy. »

Holt’s discomfort learning on a screen is compounded by the fact that he lives in Crystal River, a rural West Florida town. He said internet access in his neighborhood isn’t great on a normal day, let alone during the pandemic when many people are at home trying to use it.

Now Holt works at a makeshift desk in his spare bedroom and says he struggles with homework.

On top of that, he’s an intern and program coordinator with Veterans Alternative, a local nonprofit, and is a husband and father of a five-year-old daughter who is also homeschooling now.

“Just being a veteran and the trauma that I went through and then going to school – that’s a lot, period,” he said. “And then you add all this COVID-19 craziness and my life is crazy right now.”

Students in financial difficulty

Holt isn’t the only one feeling stressed by the disruptions. A recent survey from Student Veterans of America found that approximately 90% of respondents said they feared COVID-19 would affect their education goals.

The survey was conducted the same week that Congress passed legislation to protect GI Bill benefits as schools moved to online learning. But SVA Chief of Staff William Hubbard said many student veterans were still under financial pressure.

“A lot of these students are adults, they have financial obligations, families to pay, and that’s not really what the GI Bill is set up to cover the costs for,” Hubbard said.

By mid-March, a third of survey respondents had lost their jobs or were working fewer hours. More than 20% said they were concerned about buying groceries for their family and paying their mortgage or rent.

Hubbard said he’s also worried about graduate students entering a coronavirus-disrupted job market. He said the SVA is making economic issues a priority.

“The key to that is really helping our veteran students understand what their opportunities are in this new environment that we’re all working in,” he said.

Hubbard said SVA is partnering with the Veterans Benefits Administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and recruitment sites to host a virtual summit on economic opportunities for veterinarians. The group continues to promote jobs at veteran-friendly companies on its website.

Knowing they’re not alone

He said the SVA’s other priority is to preserve camaraderie among students unable to meet in person at local chapter meetings or campus veterinary centers.

“We’re focused on developing different opportunities so they can stay connected to this community and avoid feeling a sense of isolation,” Hubbard said.

Holt also tries to build community through her role at Veterans Alternative. He recently hosted a video chat session for vets to vent their frustrations and share tips with each other on how to cope with e-learning.

Holt heard of other parents struggling to do their jobs while caring for their children, so he organized another session specifically on this issue. He said he was not an expert but thought it was important to create a forum where people could talk about what they were dealing with.

“Sometimes just knowing you’re not the only one going through this is helpful,” he said.

Another concern raised by a veteran during the video chat was feelings of guilt about asking his school for help.

Many schools, such as the University of South Florida, allow students to opt for pass/fail grades in their classes this semester, as opposed to traditional grades which would affect their GPA. They are also extending withdrawal deadlines, noting in the students’ transcript that the decision was due to “extraordinary circumstances”.

Holt said he was lucky to have understanding teachers and he encouraged vets to reach out to their teachers if they needed help as the finals and the start of summer school approached. .

“It can be hard to reach out and ask for help and admit you’re overwhelmed, but it’s worth it, it’s important and it’s part of taking care of yourself,” said he declared.

Most colleges and universities are already planning to hold summer programs virtually while some have canceled them.

Holt takes the summer off to spend time with his family. He says he tries not to worry about whether the coronavirus might force universities to stay online only in the fall. He said veterinary students need to focus on the things they can control now.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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