From brass to class: UC Berkeley student veterans explain their transitions into higher education

Matthew Gibson/Staff

At 17, my options were to continue working multiple jobs while taking classes that I was too disinterested in to pass or to figure out an alternative pathway for myself. I soon realized that the former was never going to afford me any amount of longstanding joy and that it was important to find something that would. After coming to this conclusion, I hung up my permanently stench-filled, forever-moist Chuck E. Cheese’s suit for the last time and began my five-year enlistment with the Marines.

I loved rolling up my sleeves and pinning my blouse with a new brass chevron each time I progressed through the ranks. The military provided me with the stability and purpose I had been so determined to find throughout my childhood. It helped me become more confident in my decisions and ultimately with finding a sense of who I really was.

But in terms of uniformity, I would go as far as saying that this facet of the military extends far beyond just physical appearance. In order for a person to correctly portray their rank, it is expected that they possess a certain kind of demeanor. It was never required that I become more verbally malicious to those I was responsible for in previous jobs I held outside of the military. But I can vividly recall a time during my second year in the Marines when I was a corporal and received praise for the way that I conducted myself, their only qualm being that I was not “mean” enough.

But in terms of uniformity, I would go as far as saying that this facet of the military extends far beyond just physical appearance. In order for a person to correctly portray their rank, it is expected that they possess a certain kind of demeanor.

Seeking validation from my supervisors and wanting to emulate what they considered to be a stellar Marine, I began to put on the facade of their ideal corporal and carried this with me throughout the duration of my enlistment. This is the persona I masked myself with to progress as far as I did in the military.

But the duality to my character became exhausting to grapple with over time, and this became the leading reason for my decision not to re-enlist. I cheerily began my process to become a “civilian” again and didn’t think much further ahead than that.

I had navigated my way through high school with such a tremendous amount of difficulty that I didn’t see myself capable of continuing toward higher education. Nonetheless, I found myself enrolling in college after my enlistment because the military provides veterans with the tantalizing option of going to school without any fees or penalties for only temporarily doing so.

In the military, everyone is taught values that are necessary for us all to uphold, which makes it both important and easy to also hold others accountable. When I first went back to school, I needed to learn to adapt to interacting with students who were considered my peers without faulting them for following their own sets of rules. I also needed to uphold the ethics that are important to me but be able to distinguish when it was OK to lay off of them a bit. For this reason, I underwent quite an adjustment period when I initially started college despite my eagerness to begin the first chapter of my newly reclaimed life.

When interviewing UC Berkeley veterans, I realized we shared similar stories pertaining to our military service and experiences with school.

Chris Mason, a UC Berkeley alumnus, decided to get out of the military after realizing it was not going to be a long-term career choice for him. He immediately took advantage of the education benefits afforded to veterans once he got out.

“(The) post-911 GI Bill pays really freaking well. If you have a GI Bill and don’t use it … you’re a dummy,” Mason said.

Luis Cornejo Miramontes, a junior transfer, worked for a year at a collision company, then switched to washing cars before he decided to go back to school. Ultimately, he made this decision because he did not think there were other options at his disposal.

For Ryan Wang, who is also a junior transfer, he didn’t consider returning to school until he had a reason other than himself to do so. Wang had a difficult time getting through school when he was younger and joined the military to continue in his efforts to “escape” it. After he had a daughter, however, he began to consider the steps she might have to go through to establish a prosperous future for herself. In order to push his daughter toward the path of higher education, he realized he needed to get there first.

Military service helped prepare us for campus life by teaching us many behavioral traits that have carried over. Overly strict inspections on things such as uniforms, wall lockers and rifles have strangely instilled in us the characteristics necessary to become model students.

“I certainly like using that conflict resolution that I learned in the Marine Corps: being able to deal with problems in your personal life, your work life and still be able to sit down and do some studying for about an hour before you take another break,” Cornejo Miramontes said. “And being able to just stay disciplined while you do those things. I’m not sure that I would have been able to do them as a regular student. I know I couldn’t when I was in high school.”

Overly strict inspections on things such as uniforms, wall lockers and rifles have strangely instilled in us the characteristics necessary to become model students.

The military offers lectures in a classroom setting, but there is a stark difference in the way it is structured when compared to regular classes. Beginning in boot camp, we are taught which behaviors are unacceptable in these settings, such as slouching in our seat or leaning on our desks. And if you feel that you are getting tired, it is time to start pounding water or to stand up in the back of the classroom. If someone fails to follow these silent rules, another person will help them out by abruptly making sure they do so. These are just a few examples, but the key thing that we learned was that it’s necessary to uphold a certain standard and ensure that others are doing the same as well.

That isn’t how it works in college.

Cornejo Miramontes commented on some of these initial barriers that can sometimes play a role for others in the transition from military to campus life.

“I guess that hyperstructured work environment in the military makes it kind of difficult for me to be able to really relate to classmates or to kind of tolerate some of their behaviors. You know, slouching in class, walking in late, things like that. Especially at community college, (if) people (were) talking behind me, I used to just tell them to shut up,” Cornejo Miramontes said.

Angel Rodriguez, a first-year doctoral student who has been on active duty for 19 years, emphasized the dualities of his work and school life and the different approaches that are required of the two. He has needed to assess certain ingrained behavioral traits to be able to gauge when the line should be blurred in his classes while still maintaining military standards.

“You know what’s one thing that I would say, which I think is tough with military people in general, is when to ask for help,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes, being in military environments for so long, you kind of feel this thing that you’ve got to figure it out on your own and get it done. This is it, and there’s no other option. … And I think that’s something that I had to kind of come off on a bit.”

Being surrounded by military personnel provided me with a sense of camaraderie that was completely nonexistent in my life before joining. I loved running on the beaches in full uniform and waking up in the middle of the night to participate in mandatory hikes with my platoon. We had endured the same training and hardships that helped to create a sense of understanding among us and accountability for one another. I feared that this piece of my life that had helped me overcome challenges in so many ways would permanently dissipate when I started college.

Another initial worry of mine was that veterans may not be as accepted as they were where I was transferring from. Oceanside, California possessed a plethora of military personnel and contained both the military base I was stationed at and my community college. I was always bound to find other veterans around campus and, in a way, felt that the military dominated that city. We certainly were not the minority.

But then I came to Berkeley and was met with the complete opposite of what I expected. In fact, UC Berkeley’s Cal Veteran Services Center connects current and former student veterans and is meant to assist UC Berkeley veterans with the process of acclimating to school; the center helps to develop that sense of camaraderie that isn’t always present in regular campus life.

Cornejo Miramontes, who now works as a peer adviser for the Cal Veteran Services Center, has used the space since he began his time at UC Berkeley.

The (Cal Veterans Services Center) helps to develop that sense of camaraderie that isn’t always present in regular campus life.

“I had a place to go in between classes when I wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. I had a place to study if I needed it,” Cornejo Miramontes said. “I think that definitely helped me fall in with the crowd and … kind of build relationships among my peers that just happened to be veterans as well.”

The center has meetings for veterans and hosts a game night every other Friday. In addition, it runs a Facebook group that is closely monitored and updated with upcoming events, scholarship opportunities, workshops and activities meant to build relationships among veterans and provide an outlet from a school routine that can sometimes feel mundane after having such a dynamic schedule in the military.

“(The Cal Veteran Services Center) is my second home,” Wang said.

The center serves as a possible second home for all of us student veterans. Wang was eating lunch in the center while I interviewed a veteran I had contacted earlier and offered to be my next interviewee despite not knowing me beforehand. He knew I was a veteran, which served as enough reasoning to want to assist.

This is the silent agreement that can sometimes be difficult to find outside of the center. As student veterans arrive on campus and face the same challenges that I and others have already confronted throughout the process of transitioning to life at UC Berkeley, spaces such as this serve as invaluable resources.

Contact Mellissa Del Barrio at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @delmelbar.