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Episode 102 - Journey to Independence (Part II)

Graduate student and military veteran, Katy LaFary, discusses the unique challenges of being a student veteran.

Graduate student and military veteran, Katy LaFary, discusses the unique challenges of being a student veteran.

On the last episode, we learned about Katie's path to UNC. Now, we learn the cultural differences between being a student and a veteran.

So real quick, you were studying here in psychology? Was it educational psychology or was it just psychology?

Well, for my undergrad it's just psychology and then my master's became educational psychology. And if you ask me why ed psych, I think if you ask any of my friends here why was Katie ed psych? They'd be like, Hm, I really don't know because I always been deeply interested in neuro cog. but we don't have that program here. But the key was is that I loved the research and the faculty that I worked with so much that it felt absolutely worth it to me. I didn't really know what ed psych at the time really was. I mean, I've researched it somewhat and I was like, okay, I have like a general idea ultimately between, you know, medical and psych and teaching and all that. Like I just love helping people. So I was like, if this is a field in which we are supposed to help people, I am here for it.

And it is, it can be. It depends. We use it in very like in a lot of different ways. But but it was pretty much mainly my advisors and my undergrad and my graduate advisors and the research I was a part of that made me want to stay here for sure. Like I didn't even question it. So I said, I am just going to stay, I'll stay and I'll do this. And once I make a decision, I am all in. There is no doubt about that. I don't look back. And I typically don't, I don't have regrets either. and so yeah, I worked, so the director of veteran services said, 'if you're going to stay here, what do you think about working here?' And I was like, ehh... so weirdly I hadn't had a job in two years except for drill. And it was so nice because being able to focus on your studies is a luxury that most people do not have. Not at this university, certainly. Mostly these people are working students,

Huge number of students who are also working.

Which is vastly different than Boulder than CSU, than Denver. You're just not going to see that kind of population and a lot of the places around here. And I think when you at numbers you have to be very careful because you're forgetting a huge variable of the fact that our students are typically working almost full time job if not full time jobs, you know? And so I think that that is important to note also. Anyway, that's like a side note...

And I said, let me think about it. And then the next day I said, sure, cause this is who I am. I'm very casual about big decisions sometimes I have learned about myself. And so I started working there and my life completely changed. I did not realize before then, like, I mean I knew I was lonely here, which was a new feeling for me. So I don't even think that I could give it a name because it just felt so foreign. But I knew I felt an emptiness. And in the military ,you have a family. Like ultimately that's what you hear from a lot of veterans is they miss their family. The family aspect, the closeness that you get, especially when you're overseas or when you're deployed or in a small unit. Like you become each other's family cause you do not have your family around you. You know? And I didn't realize how much I missed that until I walked into veterans services for the first day of work and realized that that was, it seemed, became the wildest, most unique family that I have ever had. It was a bunch of, we were like, Oh, what is that called? Like the lost...in Toy Story, the ones that get thrown away, the...

Oh, I know what you're talking about, but...

You know, the broken ones and the ones that people don't want anymore. Like that was, that was a lot of us there is I think why we ultimately felt like. We were older, we didn't really kind of fit in. We have a brashness to us oftentimes. Like I'm a, I'm loosely approachable. My face maybe says otherwise when I'm not smiling. But I am very approachable once he talked to me. But a lot of times there's like a gruffness I'm also Air Force, which is looked at as the most like civilian branch and I don't have trauma, which is pretty significant.

If you're mentioning that you don't have trauma, but like you do research on trauma. Correct?

I do.

So then how does that happen?

Well, so when I told you we did the, okay, actually this all ties together. So at veterans services, I meet a lot of the veterans that have some pretty significant trauma. They had childhood trauma, they had trauma while in the military that devastated them. And I think there's a lot of survivor guilt too. A lot of the people that they are with on deployments had died. But why they asked why were they still alive? And a lot of people don't understand this is kind of going to my dissertation topic and everything. They don't understand that multiple traumas impact the brain differently. Like, it's not like you have on trauma and and that is what it is and push it out to the side. You know, obviously if it, if it affects the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, it continues to impact it, right? So your expression after multiple traumas, like the way you respond to it and your distress that comes afterwards is oftentimes going to be more pronounced after multiple traumas. Right? But veteran's, they're thinking, why am I struggling so much? They come to a university and this was like within a week or two of me being there. I was realizing how much struggle there was because often when you are used to a situation that is life or death and then you come to a university after that... Is a, is a quiz, is a test, is coming to class going to feel important to you? No. Oftentimes the answer is no. It doesn't even feel like real life. I mean to be. If I was being honest with you, a lot of times when I could feel myself being very stressed out as a graduate student or as an instructor, as a researcher, I would always, that was my baseline all the time. Katie, this isn't in the scheme of things, this isn't even real life. We're in this weird, magical bubble where we just focus on thoughts and critical thinking and problem solving and the things that I wish everyone had time in the world to think about every day. But that is not the reality of most people's life. And that is coming from a non-combat veteran. So can you imagine what combat veterans feel when they're sitting around in a class room and you have young people talking about, they feel very passionately about topics that they may never have experienced and most likely haven't, you know.

Or the stress that one may have in comparison with someone else that's in the room. What does that word stress even mean at that point?

Absolutely. Yeah. And so, so there we see a higher attrition rate oftentimes for things like that. Like, I had real things to worry about my family, maybe they're struggling a lot of times with financial stuff because you go from being very supported in the military. You get housing allowance, you get food allowance, you have a base pay, you have all this stuff that's built in, right? It's like a university, but it's all paid for, like, you know, that's unheard of. Right? Right. It's very socialist, I don't know, people realize. In medical, same thing. In the military, it's fairly socialist. And then you are out all the sudden, and you oftentimes you're dealing with all the stress of that complete change in lifestyle, you know, complete, literally complete change in everything and they're like, 'have fun, like good luck,' you know? And so that was kind of brewing in my mind of like, 'how can I do anything?' you know, I'll have to, sometimes, a lot of times it's just being the ear for somebody. Right. And they just want to talk about it with somebody that they feel like understands them because it's a very tight knit community. And oftentimes veterans do not prefer to really listen to non-veterans. You know? They're just like, you don't understand, you haven't been there, blah, blah, blah. Right? So, just to be there and work with people that understood and stuff like that. Anyway, for me, selfishly it w it felt very good to be a part of this, this family, no matter how dysfunctional they were, and many of them still remain close friends with me today and it's just so great. And I finally started feeling like a part of this community, you know, and being a part of veterans,

I have to pause here and narrate because Katie and I go on some tangents about graduate school and the social life or lack thereof, but we find our way back to the crossroads of her military experience and education, which is focused on trauma. I'll let Katy take it from here.

My first few months in the military, even before I even got to my first duty station, just in basic training and tech school, I talked to many women and it was unfortunately it was the same story over and over and over again. They had had experienced significant traumas when they were growing up. And then again while in the military. And I kept asking myself the why's and of course back then I had no idea about the neurological components and all the things, but I just needed to know some answers well as much as research gives us answers or just more questions, right? But questions that we need to be asking. And I mean I say women and it's not like men do not absolutely experiences cause they absolutely do. It's just, that was the group I was around because I was mainly around females at that time in my career. And also I think that there is more of a willingness cause the social aspect. There's a willingness for that women will talk about it more with women than men.

Relatability. Yeah. And you're able to talk, and I mean if we're talking to dissertation too, I mean you kind of need to narrow your scope as well.

I do, you're right. And I haven't even decided. I think I probably will just do females, but I don't want to. But gender is such a huge factor. So then the other aspect was like, yeah. So then the second part of the dual is the trauma while in the military as well. And so I started doing qualitative research on it and I threw some of my quantitative classes I needed. I started thinking about like narrowing it down and you know what I was going to really do with it.

Sorry to chime in once again, because we begin to discuss the financial burden of being a student, which led Katie to make her decision to, well, I'll let her explain.

So I still need to finish up my comps this semester before I deploy. I'm deploying in July...

Katie goes on to discuss her deployment and reflects on her experience as both an active military veteran and a scholar.

That's helps me be a better airman. It's helped me be a better leader. I started the mentorship program here at UNC for veterans. And that is obviously helpful in the active duty world or military world in general. So I have zero regrets. And I think with every decision there's so much we can learn and all that stuff. So I started back in July is when I started back at it and it's pretty much the opposite lifestyle of what I had been doing for seven years. But I really, I want to know, like, I want to have the knowledge that I will learn from doing the lit review. I want to talk to these veterans. I want there to be numbers that show the trauma and the results of it.

And you bring a different aspect of what it means, what trauma is and, and so even you taking some time off and coming back, that's time for you to learn your own toolbox and, and to be able to learn how that's used and then come back almost with a fresh set, you know? And, and kind of understanding it, whereas, you know, yes, sometimes we streamline these, these ideas of how degrees work, but why, There's no one setting that in place. There's no official way to do it. Now, good thing that you actually did finish your courses because I think those expire, right? But you don't have to worry about that anymore. So it's like you're taking your time on what you do want in the long run, which is, which is fair and only admirable in my eyes.

Yeah. And I'm only on my fourth year, so it's not like as hard as some people been on me about not finishing it or not progressing as much. Like we all have different timelines for different reasons and sometimes we have to be flexible and my timeline's just has just varied from what I thought it would be. And that is what it is. But it also being in a deployed location, like I'll get to talk to more people, unfortunately seeing how trauma impacts them but I think that it will ultimately be good for my research and for my understanding. And so I think that this probably happened for a reason of some sort, for sure. You know, this journey. If you think back when I started this talk and you think back on me sitting there in junior year and in a computer lab trying to decide what I'm going to be, fast forward to almost, you know, it's been almost 19 years that I've been in and I would never in a million years guessed that I was finishing up my PhD, that I stayed in, that I was going to get promoted to the second highest rank in the enlisted forces.

You know, that I was going to meet people that changed my life forever. You know, like, it's so hard to explain to people that haven't been through it. Like we think of this oftentimes when people we meet in grad school, cause you think nobody understands this until you've been through it, right? The same thing we say about military members and I've been through both and it's, it's... I feel like this life is not worth living without the relationships that we build. And if something were to happen to me tomorrow, I'd be like, it was so worth it. The beautifulness of the people that I have met. Even through like all the complexities and the sadness and the excitement. It all feels so worth it, you know?

And ultimately what I want to do in the future. I love medical so much. I love medicine, I love helping people. And so through being a medic for seven years, I realized that I really love patient care. And so I want to be a PA. So after I get done with my PhD, I'm going, I'm going to apply for PA school and that's what I'm going to do. And people say, why would you like, why you don't make any sense, Katy, we're going back to the very beginning, this is why I told you at the beginning you know, asking my mom was she worried? And sometimes she says, I still am sometimes Kate, but somehow it always works out. And I think that ultimately people have a hard time because they think that we should choose a path, one path. And I say to that I would be an eighth of a person that I am today if I chose one single path that somebody felt like I should do.


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