Military Student Finds Her Place at UTD

Graphic by Ryan Magee | Mercury Staff

Navy veteran gives insight into years of military service, transition back into college

As servicemen leave the armed forces, finding work in the civilian sector can be challenging. Enlisted soldiers without college degrees may be unable to find work despite their skills obtained during service. Regardless, many still choose to leave for the benefits of civilian life. Engineering student and Navy veteran Reina Woolridge chose to serve in the Navy because of an intrinsic desire to be involved. After three semesters at UNT, she left in 2014 to join the Navy. 

“I had my college paid for. I think more so I just had this need — I had this thing inside of me where I wanted to do something good. I was a part of the government involvement on campus and I was just thinking, ’I really want to do something, I want to be more involved,’ so I joined the Navy,” Woolridge said. “At the time, the Navy was doing a lot of rescue-type missions. Or at least, the media was covering a lot more rescue missions, so I thought it was more (of) what we’d be doing.”

After serving in Japan for four years under the rate AT-2, which stands for avionics electronics technician, Woolridge said one of the biggest adjustments into civilian life was interacting with people again. 

“I was a single sailor. I was only ever around other single sailors. The culture is a lot different than what you’re used to,” Woolridge said. “You have to be careful with people to make sure you don’t offend them as much. The work pace is a lot quicker in the military; over here it’s a lot slower. I notice that people aren’t as hardworking, so it can kind of get to you. Even just in school I’ve noticed that in group projects that I’ve had, other veterans that are in the classes are more willing to help than non-veterans.”

Despite existing skills acquired during her time in the Navy, Woolridge said she wanted to pursue a career in Engineering, which led to her to return to college. She said after getting her degree, it won’t be likely that she’ll rejoin the Navy.

“I want to have more freedom. You don’t have a lot of freedom in the military. I want to help people, right? Well, in the military, you’re not always helping people,” she said. “I would prefer just to stay out and work with the military as a contractor or for a different company altogether.”

She said part of the reason she left was to see her family, which she wasn’t able to do while she was serving. 

“That’s part of why I got out too, I have family here. My whole time serving in the Navy, I never came back to the US and some family died while I was abroad,” Woolridge said. “If I’d stayed in the Navy, I’d have stayed overseas and there was no telling when I would’ve been able to see my family.”

While she transitioned from military to school, Woolridge said a lot of her friends transitioned from military straight into the workforce, which proved to be difficult when many of them lacked a college education. Applying for jobs at companies that advertise themselves as “veteran friendly” was also challenging because they didn’t live up to the label. 

 “I have a lot of friends that are really struggling financially. I have a few that went to companies like Raytheon and Texas Instruments working as techs, which they’re fine at and it lets them spend time with their families, which is why they got out,” Woolridge said. “A lot of companies say they’re ‘veteran friendly,’ which I don’t think is true. When I got out, I immediately tried looking for a job in all these places marketing as ‘veteran friendly,’ and I didn’t even get a call back.” 

As a UTD student now, Woolridge described the benefits presented by the university to her not only as a student, but also as a veteran. She said having access to VA health care was challenging, and that being able to utilize the services offered through the Student Wellness Center was useful in determining if she needed to go to the VA for more serious cases.

“Another thing is health care. A lot of people don’t really talk about it in the military, because you’re covered while you’re active duty, but when you get out, if you haven’t served 20 years, you don’t get a lot of health care services. You have to enroll in the VA and go to initial clinic which is in Dallas. I don’t have a lot of time to go to Dallas and spend the whole day there while they check over me,” Woolridge said. “That’s been really hard, but the school has a clinic that I learned about through the veteran’s center, where they can see you for free and be like, ‘Oh, well you need these types of medications.’ Then I’ll be able to know that maybe I should go to the VA and spend time so that I can get better or if it’s something that’ll pass.”

Woolridge said taking undergraduate classes with non-veteran students can be challenging because people have faced different levels of responsibility in their lives, and that veterans have had the opportunity to have more responsibility as a result of their job. She said it helps to be patient with veterans as they’re transitioning into civilian life.

“We’re coming from a time when we were being told what to do and where to be all the time, so we really didn’t have any freedom (prior) to being here. So some people take that a little differently. Some people are super quiet and don’t express their feelings. They could be hurting on the inside and not saying it out loud,” Woolridge said. “Also remember that some of us are direct. Just be patient with us. Maybe say, ‘Hey, the way you’re speaking is making me feel uncomfortable. I understand you’re transitioning so let’s work through this together.’ A lot of us are transitioning so we want people to tell us when we’re being (brash), but at the same time we can’t really help it, so we need help in that aspect.”

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