Emerson student veterans face difficult transitions

by Noah Reynolds / Beacon Correspondent • October 28, 2015

After serving in the Iraq war, veteran Jennifer Austin decided to return to her dream of being an actress, and enrolled at Emerson College. 

Austin, 34, is a sophomore performing arts major. She originally attended Wichita State University and majored in musical theatre in the early 2000’s. Then the attacks on Sept. 11 came. By Halloween 2001, she had left school and was already in basic training.

Austin’s first deployment took her to Kuwait for two months in 2002, her second to Iraq in 2007. She was stationed at the Balad Air Base during the height of the war, which received more incoming fire than all of the others combined, according to Austin. Her job as a Third Country National Escort was to protect the people helping the war effort who weren’t U.S. or Iraqi citizens. Her third and final deployment overseas was in Kyrgyzstan as a pharmaceutical technician for six months between 2012 and 2013. 

The end of Austin’s military service came after 13 years. Following her time in the military, she decided to start from scratch and re-pursue her dream to become a thespian. 

“I thought, ‘What the hell, what if I do something crazy and audition for all the top acting schools?’” Austin said.

Her journey back into theatre began with an acceptance letter from Emerson.

Austin said she wouldn't have left the service if the school hadn’t taken her. She said she was discharged in the summer of 2014  and began school that fall. Though she was no longer a part of the United States Armed Forces, she enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard after she left, and serves for them today.

Austin said that she experienced a transition that is often so difficult for veterans to become adjusted to.

“A year and a half later, there are still a lot of things that are hard for me,” Austin said. “I don’t know your slang, I don’t know your cultural references, I don’t watch your TV. The culture is so wildly different than what I’m used to.”

Austin is older than most classmates and has over 10 years of life experience on the average college senior. There is an actual generation gap between her and the rest of her classmates, she said.

“I think the hardest part, honestly, is there is no one looking over my shoulder,” she said. “There is no structure in my life anymore compared to what there was.”

Austin said there isn’t enough support for her in the area. She did say, however, that this lack has to do with how few veteran students are in the area, not a lack of effort on the part of the school. 

“Emerson is a private school, [so] it’s very expensive,” Austin said. “The GI Bill doesn’t cover it completely, and it’s an art school and not a lot of vets go into that afterwards.”

Because of this, Austin said she has had a hard time connecting with fellow veteran students, who in her mind, would be the people that would offer the best support.

Shamus Frasier, 28, a five year veteran of the U.S. Army, is currently a visual and media arts major at Emerson. Frasier served one deployment in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, and like Austin, Frasier said he deals with struggles that come with adjusting to everyday life. 

“It hasn't been easy, but you take it one day at a time,” Frasier said. “After you discharge out of the military they, for the most part, just dump you back into the civilian world.”

Going from an active war zone to being a full time college student brings its own challenges, he said. 

“My biggest struggle so far has been trying to be open to such liberal views here at Emerson,” Frasier said. 

Frasier said that regular citizens need to understand their views as well and to consider  that veterans aren’t represented in a proper way at Emerson. Until then, Frasier said that he doesn’t think there will be change. 

“Honestly, I would just appreciate it if I could get President Pelton in a room to discuss veteran programs and a vet lounge,” he said. “We bring unique life views and experiences that the student body would benefit from, and until Emerson starts integrating their veterans more, their numbers won't go up.” 

Christina Daly, director of retention at the Office of Student Success, wrote in an email statement to the Beacon, that the staff across the college and in her department are dedicated to helping ensure veteran students are connected to campus resources and have a seamless experience. 

"The College has also assembled a working group of staff from a number of campus offices and departments with the goal of discussing challenges student veterans may face and identifying steps the campus community might take to improve their experience,” she wrote.

Austin summed up her experience thus far as a veteran trying to navigate Emerson, with a quote from a fellow former Marine.

"The last time you went through a life change that was this dramatic, you went from chaos, to order,” she said. “Now you’re going from order to chaos.”