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“I Survived Boot Camp (and College) Thanks to This Army Strategy”

I was a naïve 19 year old when I arrived at boot camp, and very quickly learned the value of this Army rule: If one soldier fails, the platoon fails. Back in college as an older (and not altogether confident) student, the military’s buddy system has guided me on a trusted path toward graduation. Here’s how.

At the age of 19, I boarded a U.S. Army train from Miami to Fort Jackson, where I would learn to be a soldier. Thank God I didn’t have to do it alone. Starting on Day One, I walked in lockstep with 40 soldiers from all over the country; we did literally everything together.

Together, we learned how to load and shoot an M16 rifle, use a gas mask, and march in a coordinated fashion — quickly. Becoming proficient required teamwork and lots of practice. We had no choice but to form quick bonds and help one another out. Our drill sergeants had a rule: If one soldier fails, the platoon fails.

“Check your buddy, check your buddy,” was a common phrase. We called it the Buddy System and, since those days in basic training, I’ve learned that it works just as well in the classroom as it does on the battlefield.

I went back to school in my mid-40s, after receiving a scholarship from the Veteran’s Administration to pursue a degree in social work. I thought my Army training and extra year would give me a leg up on younger students. I was wrong — at least during my first semester. Managing five classes every semester and overcoming my learning-related anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD has been a process — one I may not have survived without a fellow veteran by my side.

I met my “buddy” in my social work cohort at school. We work together on projects, homework assignments, and test prep. She understands the power and ethos of the Buddy System in a way I think few other students could. We help each other out with many assignments and act as a single unit marching toward graduation.

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Now in our senior year, we have settled on a series of studying techniques that have effectively changed the way we learn. It is our way of keeping a good rhythm through the semester. Some of the following techniques were borrowed from professors and colleagues, others from the Army:

  • We find other students who value and prioritize being prepared.
  • We work in dedicated study rooms at the campus library.
  • We set a timer in increments of one hour with fifteen-minute breaks.
  • We recite new material to each other out loud; verbally explaining it helps us retain information.
  • We don’t allow interruptions from cell phones, text messages, or social media during designated study periods.

These techniques have worked every semester. My GPA has steadily climbed as I’ve strengthened my organization and time-management skills with my study group. Sometimes, my buddy and I will exchange reminders via text to make sure we have what we need to be ready for class. It honestly helps just knowing that someone has my back, even if sometimes we face setbacks.

There are good days and bad days, for sure. It is hard not to feel like crap when you score poorly on a quiz, miss an important date for an assignment, read the wrong chapter for class, or simply have too many things on your plate and let something slide. When I do poorly on a quiz, my buddy will look over at me and say, “It’s over; the quiz is done. Let’s move forward.” Yes, it is easy for her to say, but still it brings me some comfort to know she is there to support me.

I consider learning a work in progress. Every semester, I gain new tools from professors, my study buddy, and other students. I am proud of my military training, which taught me the resilience I have needed to persist in college. Academics will never be easy for me, but then neither was boot camp — and chances are my post-collegiate career will offer some challenges as well.

The notion to return to college at age 45 came from a boss I had while working as an administrative assistant at a VA hospital in South Dakota — a 100-bed facility for Vets recovering from PTSD and substance abuse. I loved the work but learned that, without a degree, my career options were limited. After graduation, I plan to use my social work degree to continue my work with veterans struggling to overcome challenges. This work will, no doubt, challenge me — but I’m confident that my military training, service, and college Buddy System have taught me the resilience and skills I will need for life’s next great adventure.

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