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After 35 years in U.S. Army, this veteran proves the transition to college is possible, rewarding

SFC Joe Collins to graduate this spring with bachelor’s in business

Wednesday Nov 04, 2015

Veterans face a multitude of challenges. Making the transition from a long career in the military to becoming a college student has got to be among the most daunting.

Just ask Sergeant First Class Joe Collins, who enrolled at Indiana University Northwest almost immediately after retiring from a 35-year career in the U.S. Army.

Throughout his military career, which began at the tender age of 17, Collins served tours of duty in Italy, Germany and Korea as well as Iraq, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There, Collins spent 14 months in the role of combat engineer and a short stint as a chaplain’s assistant. For the final 11 years of his military career before retiring, Collins had been with Indiana National Guard’s 113th Engineer Battalion in Gary.

As he began wrapping up his military career, Collins became uneasy about what a post-military life would be like, and about what he should do next. He was first introduced to the notion of college by a fellow soldier who showed him around the School of Business and Economics.

“I met some remarkable people, so I said, ‘sign me up!’ he said.

Today, the 57-year-old Collins has a much different life. Now four years into his retirement, and nearing the end of his college career, he is excited about beginning a new chapter as a financial advisor once he graduates with a bachelor’s degree in business administration next spring.

Collins, who had sought a certification in financial advising during his military leaves, has an established business in place, Primerica Financial Services, where he will serve clients full-time when he graduates.

Pausing to reflect on his journey recently, and recounting the experiences that have shaped him, Collins realized that he has an important message to offer fellow veterans who might be intimidated by the seemingly insurmountable challenges of returning to school after military life.

The Louisiana-born husband and father of five sons and three daughters, wants fellow veterans to know that help is available for those willing to be open about their challenges, something that can be especially difficult for veterans, Collins says, who are often held back by their pride.

“Pride hurts more soldiers than helps them,” Collins says. “The average veteran is not going to sit down and tell just another person what is going on until he can relate to someone who’s already been there, been through the same thing.”

Though there are no outward signs of a disability when talking with Collins, he’ll disclose that he has been declared “a 100 percent service-disabled veteran.” He explains that having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common challenge for many veterans, as well as traumatic brain injury (TBI), also common for those who have served in combat, he struggles with some academic tasks, like taking tests in the allotted time, as well as an occasional lag in comprehension.

“Sometimes, I would try to ‘be a grown up’ and hang with the rest of the class, but it was rough,” Collins admits.

Disclosing his limitations has proved beneficial for Collins. While he has the right to keep his disability confidential, Collins decided to take the help available to him. Soon after he enrolled at IU Northwest, Collins met Cathy Hall, an advisor who steered him toward services that could help him succeed. Now, he is a whole-hearted advocate of taking advantage of Student Support Services.

“I have some very great professors,” Collins says, “who have sat down with me and listened to me go into detail about my situation. I let them know that where I used to be able to comprehend and roll with it, now, it takes time. Because I am part of Student Support Services, this allows me to have more time in order to complete the test.”

Collins says that “having PTSD does not stop you from pushing your career forward. The thing that stops you from pushing your career forward is not making it known.”

Having a place on campus where veterans can go to talk with each other, would be positive. He hopes that one day, this will be a reality.

Still, he calls IU Northwest “a truly veteran-friendly campus.”

“I appreciate IU Northwest, first of all, for working with my condition. My condition is extremely ongoing. From where I was, to where I am, has been remarkable. I haven’t had a whole lot of improvement, but I’ve had a great deal of adjustment to deal with my situation. 

“As far as getting better, no it’s not going to change. My cognitive response and reflexes are not going to change. The injury itself is never going anywhere. The PTSD is never going anywhere. But being here, being in the school environment, the social environment of being able to relate to all these different backgrounds, all these different age groups, all these different cultures, all this has been a true benefit to my condition.”

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