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'It's Been A Nightmare': Student Veterans Face Unique Challenges With Online College Classes

Marine Corps veteran Travis Holt has been doing his schoolwork in a makeshift office in his spare bedroom. His internet connection at home isn't great, which can make getting online assignments done difficult.
Courtesy Travis Holt
Marine Corps veteran Travis Holt has been doing his schoolwork in a makeshift office in his spare bedroom. His internet connection at home isn't great, which can make getting online assignments done difficult.

The transition from classroom to virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many student veterans, and the worries won't end with the spring semester.

Marine Corps veteran Travis Holt, 40, is wrapping up his first year in a master's program for social work at the University of South Florida in Tampa. It's been a year that was profoundly affected by the coronavirus epidemic. In March, the university canceled in-person classes and moved all instruction online.

"It's been a nightmare," Holt said. "I didn't sign up to do online schooling; I'm a classroom guy, I'm kind of an old school-type guy."

Holt's discomfort learning on a screen is worsened by the fact that he lives in Crystal River, a rural west Florida city. He said Internet access in his neighborhood isn't great on a normal day, let alone during the pandemic when a lot of people are home trying to use it.

Now Holt works out of a makeshift office in his spare bedroom and said he struggles to get assignments done.

On top of that, he is an intern and program coordinator at Veterans Alternative, a local nonprofit organization, and is a husband and father to a five year-old daughter who is also attending school from home now.

"Just being a combat veteran and the trauma I've experienced and then going to school - that's a lot, period," he said. "And then you throw in all of this COVID-19 madness and my life is insane right now."

Students struggling financially

Holt isn't alone in feeling stressed by the disruptions. A recent survey from Student Veterans of America found about 90 percent of respondents said they're concerned COVID-19 will affect their education goals.

The survey was conducted the same week Congress passed a law to protect GI Bill benefits as schools switched to online learning. But SVA Chief of Staff William Hubbard said many student veterans are still under financial strain.

"A lot of these students are adults, they've got financial obligations, families to pay for, and that's not really what the GI Bill is set up to cover the cost of," Hubbard said.

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

Hubbard said he is also worried about graduating students who will enter a job market turned upside down by the coronavirus. He said SVA is making economic issues a priority.

"The key to that is really helping our student veterans figure out 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 job recruiting sites to host a virtual economic opportunity summit for vets. The group continues to promote jobs at veteran-friendly companies on its website.

Knowing they're not alone

He said SVA's other priority is preserving camaraderie among students unable to gather in person at local chapter meetings or campus vet centers.

"We're focused on developing different opportunities so they can stay connected to that community and avoid feeling a sense of isolation," Hubbard said.

Holt is also trying to create community through his role at Veterans Alternative. He recently hosted a video chat session for vets to vent frustrations and share tips with one another about coping with online learning.

Holt heard from other parents struggling to get their work done while they take care of their kids, so he hosted another session specifically on that issue. He said he is no expert but felt it was important to create a forum where people could talk about what they're dealing with.

"Sometimes just knowing you're not the only one going through it is helpful," he said.

Another concern raised by a veteran during the video chat was a feeling of guilt about reaching out to their school for help.

Many schools, such as the University of South Florida, are allowing students to opt for pass/fail grades in their classes this semester, as opposed to traditional grades that would affect their grade point average. They're also extending withdrawal deadlines, noting in studentstranscript that the decision was due to "extraordinary circumstances."

Holt said he's lucky to have understanding professors, and he encouraged vets to communicate with their teachers if they need assistance as finals approach and summer courses begin.

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

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

Holt is taking the summer off to spend time with his family. He sais he tries not to worry about whether the coronavirus could force universities to remain online-only in the fall. He said student vets 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.

Veterans and Military Issues Reporter, WUSF - Tampa
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