When Liyah Stewart began her first semester at Auburn University in January, she was considered a nontraditional student, but not just because she was older than the average college student.

The 25-year-old Stewart came to Auburn after five years in the Army as a pharmacy technician.

That transition can be tough, and Stewart admits that it wasn’t until she found the Auburn Student Veteran Association that she was able to get the resources she needed to be successful.

Stewart said it was her faith, more so than coming from a military family, that led her to the Army.

“When I was in the Army, the Army was my full-time job,” the biomedical science major said. “So, when I did classes, I did maybe one or two classes here and there, and it was always online.”

To go from taking a couple of classes per semester to five would challenge any student, and Stewart admits that she struggled with anxiety during her first semester.

Getting acclimated to her new campus — adjusting to a new schedule and daily routine and simply trying to be more social — was difficult.

“There’s a lot of things that the Army does prepare you for, but then some things you have to learn on your own,” Stewart said.

The student veterans group has helped her find her “battle rhythm,” she said, with help with everything from tutoring, figuring out which classes to take and having a group of colleagues that are struggling with the same things.

Jennifer Orona had always had a plan for everything, but she admits that her decision to enlist in the Army was the first impulsive decision she’d ever made. The Odessa, Texas, native saw it as a chance to explore options outside of her hometown.

Now, with her agricultural science education being covered by G.I. Bill, she doesn’t have to burden her family with the cost of a veterinary degree.

Orona said she had always been a focused student with the discipline to study, but, like Stewart, as she dealt with her fair share of struggles as she transitioned into student life.

“I thought I could handle being a full-time student. My first semester I took 16 credit hours,” Orona said. “I didn’t have anyone to tell me you might want to slow your roll.”

Her GPA began to drop just two semesters in. Orona thought she came in with the tools she needed to succeed in school, but with also working for a local doctor full-time and trying to manage a work-life balance caught up with her.

Orona explained that in the Army, she and other are taught to figure out the answers themselves, so she was reluctant to ask for help when she needed it at Auburn.

After speaking with Robyn Westbrook, a former student veteran and current student services coordinator for the university’s adult education programs, Orona realized that it was okay to ask for help.

“It’s amazing what this office can do and how fast it can change your whole life,” Orona said. “For me it was exactly what I needed and here I am succeeding.”

Westbrook has been involved with the association since it was a handful of student veterans meeting in a small room in the Haley Center in 2009.

Even then, however, Westbrook knew that they were creating something special, just by meeting with other student veterans, seeing how much they all had in common and bonding with them.

“In the military you have a lot of standard operating procedure type learning environments. Nobody’s asking you to make decisions; you’re told how to do it. You practice how to do it.” Westbrook explained. “So, in the college setting, you’re asked your opinion, you’re asked to think out of the box, you’re asked to be creative and express yourself.

“While to some people that may seem simple, but to someone who is recently separated from the military that may be a new challenge and a new stress,” she said.

Westbrook said it took her three years to “feel pretty integrated into civilian life.”

Paityn Whittington just began her first semester at Auburn this past August, after basic training and active duty with the Air National Guard since October 2018. So far, she’s been able to adjust to student life just fine, but notes that at 21 years old, she’s still around the age of the average college student.

Similarly to Stewart and Orona, Whittington’s decision to enlist wasn’t explicitly planned. With her father serving in the Army, she’d grown up with a familiarity of the military, but admits that it “was never something I was interested in.”

After graduating high school, she attended Troy University for a year, confessing that she didn’t take school as seriously as she should have.

“I didn’t go to college because I wanted to go, I went because I thought that was what you did after high school,” Whittington said.

After talking with her father, she decided to enlist and be active duty, seeing it as what she needed to do to go out on her own.

Whittington calls basic training “the best and worst two months of her life” and an experience that brought about significant character changes — especially when it came to school.

She now understands that school is a privilege and something that she should take advantage of. Enrolled as a speech pathology major, she said she’s been doing well in her classes and enjoys the experience.

“It does have a lot to do with the training, but it’s also just knowing you have something now that is so much bigger than yourself that you have to represent,” she said. “The way I carry myself now is different than from how I did before because I represent something more than just myself. I represent a branch of service and all the people in it and I’m representing my unit.”

Whittington added that after joining any branch of the military you feel more comfortable around other people who also have served. She believes that she’s found her “tribe” early into her time at the university.

Westbrook said that all students look for a support network when they come to college, where they can thrive and bond with other students who have shared their experience.

The association works with their student veterans one-on-one to help them reach their individual “endgame” of graduating and starting a career.

For more information, contact the Auburn Student Veteran Association at 334-844-8167 or veterans@ auburn.edu.

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