HAMPTON — John H. Davis is an Army veteran with multiple tours in Afghanistan, a former paratrooper and infantry squad leader, who took part in a discussion about veterans transitioning out of the military with Virginia Peninsula Community College (VPCC) President Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon on Nov. 8.
Davis described his time in the service as straightforward.
“Being in the military is super simple. You just do what they tell you to do,” he told an audience of about 30 who attended the semester’s second “Tea with Dr. B” event.
Davis offered guidance on how to transfer from the military to college, the topic of his book “Combat to College.” The hour-long discussion was held three days before Veterans Day.
“In civilian life, I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have to figure out what I’m going to do. I don’t have anyone to tell me what to do,” he explained.
That transition isn’t easy, he admitted, but it’s a great next step.
“College provides an environment after you get out of the military to re-figure yourself out. It gives you some time. It gives you some space. It gives you some resources,” said Davis, who advocates for veterans and helps draft legislation that centers on college education.
Even if a transitioning veteran has no firm plans on what to do with a college degree, they should go anyway, Davis said.
“College is a place where people go to find themselves, to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, and that can be a place for veterans to re-find themselves after the military, to reconstruct your identity,” he said. “A lot of 19-year-old students have no idea what they’re going to do with their college degree but they’re going anyway. Veterans can do that too.”
It’s a particularly important topic with such a heavy military presence in Hampton Roads, VPCC noted. According to the College’s Military and Veteran Services department, there were 2,271 military-affiliated students at VPCC in the 2022-23 academic year. That accounted for more than 26 percent of students.
“I’m really happy that he’s here to share not just his journey, but some really sage advice for college administrators, those who support students, faculty and our students directly,” Dr. Brannon said.
At the event, economics professor Ian Taylor asked what steps he could take in the classroom to make the transition smoother for veterans. Davis suggested more hands-on learning activities.
“The military is a very experimental learning environment,” Davis said. “A lot of times, your traditional education tends to be more passive … where the students just sit there and the professor talks to them.”
Veterans also love competition and teamwork.
“Nothing you are going to do in the military is going to be by yourself,” Davis said. “The more you can partner veterans with other students is beneficial, to the classroom as well.”
Davis also suggests a program he calls “Meet a Veteran,” where fellow students interview or talk with a veteran. He said there’s a great divide in the country right now, but veterans can help.
“Veterans have a really unique role to play in healing our nation,” he said. “We’re in
every corner of the country. We’re from 17-100 years old. People respect us and our service.”
However, people must get to know them first.
“A lot of people have this misperception of veterans that we’re all PTSD-filled, angry alcoholics. That drives a wedge in between the two groups,” he said.
Outside the classroom, Davis suggests engaging veterans. That can include providing incentives for them to visit the Veterans Services Center, participate in Veterans Affairs (VA) work-study programs or have a Student Veterans of America chapter, which the college has. Having strong leadership in those organizations, where they are the drivers, is important, he said.
“You have to make the student veteran population know that they’re welcome, but also engage in things to get them in the office: raffles, events, fitness,” Davis said.
Partnering with local nonprofits and veterans organizations — VFWs, American Legions, military bases — and building connections also can be beneficial.
“Sometimes those military folks feel more a part of military organizations than college groups,” Davis said.
Still, college is a wonderful place for veterans to start their civilian journey, he said.
“When you get out of the military, you are essentially boarding a ship from military land and sailing it over to the civilian side,” he said. “Some veterans have the ability to zip right over. Some veterans get lost on the way. Sometimes they stay in between, in this unhealthy mental space that I call ‘Veteran Purgatory.’”
That was the impetus for “Combat to College.”
“It helps student veterans because our first stop after the military is often college,” he said. “That first year that veterans get out of the military is actually the most important year of our lives because that is when we will re-figure out our civilian identity and developed habits that will take us into our futures.”
For more information on Veterans Services at the College, visit vpcc.edu.