When Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Katherine Martinez began preparing for life after active duty, she hit a bump in an unexpected location: the classroom.
“It’s a unique experience to come back as a student veteran,” she said in an email. “You come back older and with your experiences, so coming into a classroom where the population is younger can sometimes make you feel like you’re out of place.”
From ship to class
Luckily, Martinez found an organization that significantly eased her transition from sailor to student. Student Veterans of America (SVA) has over 1,500 chapters at universities in every state and four countries. Martinez got hooked up with the Washington, D.C.-based charity while at Tidewater Community College in Virginia, then Old Dominion University.
“I attended my first NatCon (SVA’s National Conference) in 2020,” Martinez said. “After attending the breakout sessions, meeting my fellow student veterans and huge companies that wanted to hire student veterans was the most pleasant feeling in the world.”
One of those fellow student veterans is Army Spc. Tiahna Pantovich, a former Arabic crypto linguist. She joined the military straight out of high school primarily for the educational benefits. The GI Bill, of course, helped pave the way for her eventual three (soon to be four) ― college degrees. But one thing it couldn’t do was prepare her for the shock of switching from Army bases to college campuses.
“I think it just wasn’t in me to go to class in pajamas and holding red Solo cups, like a lot of my classmates were doing,” Pantovich said. “When I get out of bed, I am prepared for the day.” That get-up-and-go attitude, instilled in her from the first week of boot camp, worked well in the Army ― but it stuck out mightily among most students at the University of Michigan and then Howard University.
“I felt like I did not fit in,” she said. “The Army was very diverse, but I could go out to a bar at the University of Michigan and be the only brown or black person in the setting.”
“I wanted to be connected with the veteran community, especially academics,” she said. So she went looking, eventually finding SVA in Michigan. The 2021 NatCon was virtual and free, so Pantovich attended. She loved what she saw, enjoying not only the camaraderie of other student veterans, but also the practical help SVA offered.
Honored and bonded
Soon, Pantovich found herself attending SVA’s Leadership Institute and other various events. She made new friends, including Martinez. The pair was elated to find out they were nominated for the latest SVA’s “Student Veteran of the Year.” The award, given at each year’s NatCon, honors a student veteran whom SVA feels best represents their cause with character and accomplishment.
Both Martinez and Pantovich were top 10 finalists. Martinez was declared the winner at the Orlando conference in January.
“All that I do comes from a place of love; to have my work and passion be recognized in this way left me speechless,” she wrote. “The other top 10 finalists had done amazing work, so being picked as the winner was unbelievable.”
Martinez’ win came with a yearlong ambassador role, representing over 754,000 SVA members at events around the country. She also landed an unexpected spot on SVA’s board.
Both Martinez and Pantovich aim to help other student veterans ease their transition into the classroom and across the graduation stage. These goals can be met, they said, through actions like making student veterans aware of campus resources specifically designed for them and connecting them with military-friendly schools and employers.
The most important factor to succeeding in the student veteran transition, each said, is human connection.
“I believe that when I’m in my doctoral program in however many years, I will still be able to reach out to these people at SVA,” said Pantovich. “I know these people are so genuine.”Read comments