A student veteran perspective

Graduate student Nicholas Hawkins is president of the UT Student Veterans Association.
Graduate student Nicholas Hawkins is president of the UT Student Veterans Association. Photo: Marsha Miller

Nicholas Hawkins is a global policy studies graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and president of the UT Student Veterans Association. In this essay, he discusses his career and life in the military, his path to The University of Texas at Austin and his experiences on campus.

I first stepped foot on The University of Texas at Austin campus in the middle of my yearlong tour in Iraq.  I encountered a vibrant, yet leisurely campus. Students my age sat on the lawn in front of the Tower enjoying conversation, while others simply walked to and from classes. I encountered a world completely alien to the one that I would soon return to. A world comprised of dusty humvees, five-hour "presence" patrols and weapons.

The university's undergraduate programs in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies initially attracted me to UT. After returning from Iraq, I desired to come to a deeper understanding of the country's complex and nuanced society. I felt that combining an area studies degree with language courses would help me to comprehend at least some of my personal experiences in Iraq, as well as some of the nation's larger societal issues.

As a returning veteran, my first year at the university was undoubtedly the hardest. Upon arriving, I quickly faced a mixture of loneliness and culture shock. Even though I met great people and made friends in my classes, they could not replace the support structure and camaraderie that I enjoyed in my military unit. As a soldier I lived in barracks, and should I need support or someone to talk to I simply knocked on my neighbor's door.

As a new university student, I lived in a largely empty one-bedroom apartment, and I felt I didn't have an outlet for my unresolved feelings surrounding my wartime experiences.

During my first year on campus I took a course that reviewed Palestinian and Israeli literature and film. The content of some of the stories occasionally triggered emotional memories of my deployment.

I did everything I could to suppress my emotions and felt they were weird or out of place in the classroom environment. Even though it was difficult and emotionally draining, facing this type of subject matter was an important part of my undergraduate education.

The Student Veterans Association here on campus is largely a social organization that strives to replicate the camaraderie that service members enjoy in their respective services before coming to the university. While veterans leave the service with a myriad of different experiences, I feel that many would resonate with some parts of my personal experiences as a new student.

The Student Veteran Center represents a large step toward ensuring that the university is a wonderful atmosphere for returning veterans. We will be able to take advantage of the center's full-time coordinator, and it will provide veterans with a focal point around which a vibrant and supportive veteran community can be built.

There will be a rotating office that will host veteran support services from the community, as well as a lounge area with a television where veterans can enjoy each other's company.

The opening of the Student Veteran Center provides an excellent recourse for returning veterans to use as we strive to arm ourselves with the educational tools necessary to compete in today's job market and continue the traditions of leadership that we learned in the military.

This Friday, Nov. 11, the university's new Student Veteran Center holds its grand opening. Student veterans, partners, friends and supporters of the veteran community are cordially invited. The celebration takes place from 2-4 p.m. in the Student Services Building (SSB), fourth floor.

Learn more about Veterans Services at the university.