Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

From Combat to Classroom – A conversation with Lee Sullivan

Lee Sullivan recently transitioned from the Navy to a student at East Tennessee State University. He is expected to graduate in 2020 with a B.B.A. in Finance. Lee has successfully transitioned from service member to student veteran and has lessons to share with others experiencing the same transition. In this conversation, Lee talks about his experience at ETSU.

Tell us a little bit about both your personal and military background. I am originally from Los Angeles, CA. I wanted to do something else right out of high school and joining the Navy was something I felt personally compelled to do. I was seeking something exciting and challenging (like many people joining the military) and wanted to serve my country, as well.

I got out of the military exactly four years to do the day that I joined. I got out as an E5. I loaded up all of my belongings into a U-Haul and drove down here to Johnson City to attend school.

What made you decide to go back to school? There were a lot of things that made me ready to leave the Navy and go on to the next chapter of my life. I decided after my first deployment that that I did not want to make a career out of the military and after weighing the pros and cons of reenlisting or not decided it was time to go ahead and make the transition back into civilian life. I’m young – this seemed like the time to do it!

How did you decide what degree to pursue? Although it doesn’t fit with what I did in the Navy (I was a Gunners Mate), I have always had an interest in finance and knew it was a good field to get into to. It has high employment rates and helping others understand their financial situation allows me to continue to serve others, just in a different way.

How did you decide what school to attend? Well, ETSU is the perfect combination of my personal and academic interests – I simultaneously fell in love with a girl here and with Johnson City and the business school at ETSU. I was stationed in Virginia at the time I got out and knew that I didn’t want to move back to California. ETSU and Johnson City had everything I was looking for in my personal as well as academic life.  Plus, I’m using the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and my benefits go far here – all of my tuition is covered and the cost of living is affordable. 

What are your goals once you are armed with a new degree? Once I graduate in Spring 2020 I plan on pursuing a career as a financial consultant.

What are some lessons you would like to share with other students who are transitioning from combat to classroom? It’s really important to have a concrete plan when transitioning from service to being a student. Have a plan and then have another plan. I’ve had friends who have had negative experiences during the transition process and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. Make sure you know how to use your benefits, make sure you understand how they work. Make sure you are actually enrolled and that your paperwork is in order with the school you’re attending. These sound like basic things but they can be complicated and, adding on the stress of transitioning, you can make some mistakes that can affect your future.

Do you feel that your military experience has made you a better student? How? Definitely, yes. If I had come to college straight out of high school I would have been a C, D, F student. My priority would not have been school. I wasn’t a terrible student in high school, but I definitely take my work more seriously now. I think that is due to my age – I’m older than most of my classmates – and also to the self-discipline instilled in me during my time in the military. I’ve found that now, as opposed to before, I do not procrastinate on my assignments and I expect myself to give 100% to my schoolwork. That’s definitely a change.

Did you have any difficulty adjusting to campus culture? Yes – especially at first. It was difficult to relate to most of my fellow students due to the age difference (I’m about 6 years older than the average college freshman) and difference in life experiences. I’ve been deployed, I’ve traveled with the military, and most of my classmates did not share those same experiences. In addition to this, I felt totally out of place. When you are in the military you are used to a lot of direction. Showing up on campus that first day of class, there’s something great about the freedom to decide whether or not you’ll actually go to class. At the same time, it was a total shock to my system.

What advice do you give students in your position to help them adjust to the campus culture? Find a student organization in which you can meet likeminded individuals. For me that was joining the Student Veterans of America at ETSU and meeting other student veterans my age. But it can be anything – join an organization in which you meet people with who you share common interests with. 

What has been your most rewarding aspect or moment? Being successful in my classes and also able to assist other veterans as they transition from the service back into civilian life.

If you could redo your transition to school, what would you do differently? I just would have tried to avoid the normal “freshman” stuff – I would have waited to buy my textbooks, etc. But just like a more traditional freshman, I’m new to these things and learning as I go.

Are there any blunders you would urge service members to avoid as they transition into the life of a student? Don’t take less than full time during the school year and make sure you do your research. Make sure the degree you’re pursuing will lead to a good job.

What is your best advice for transitioning service members? Look into all of the benefits you are eligible for from the VA and as well as in your state. Some states offer extra scholarships or benefits to veterans going back to school. Just do your homework.

Would you recommend your school to other military members and veterans? Why? Yes. ETSU is very military-friendly and that makes the transition much easier. The Mountain Home VA Medical Center is literally across the street from ETSU and the Office of Veterans Affairs at ETSU is very easy to work with and is here to help answer your questions and provide you with the resources you need.

What was your job in the military? I was with the Coastal Riverine Squadron 4 (CRS 4) and was a gunner on small boats. I spent my first deployment as an aft or bow gunner and my second as a coxswain on one of our boats. We did maritime security operations.

What military achievement are you most proud of? I would have to say it was becoming one of a very few coxswains for the Navy’s newest craft at the time. A coxswain is a boat driver.

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