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Creating a Welcoming Environment for Veterans in Higher Education
Roughly one million veterans and military-affiliated students are attending colleges and universities to advance their educations and find high-quality jobs after completing their military service (US Department of Veterans Affairs 2013). But what are the experiences of these students, who are typically called student veterans? How are institutions helping to ensure their success on twenty-first-century campuses? How are these students included as members of our campus communities?
Defining the Veteran Population
First, let’s be clear about whom we are talking. The most widely accepted definition of student veterans refers to a population that includes students who currently serve, or have ever served, in the military (Vacchi and Berger 2014). This population includes graduate and undergraduate students who are on active duty, those who are serving in the National Guard or Reserves, and those who are separated from the military, such as retirees or service members who left the military after an enlistment tour or two.
Student veterans may share some common experiences, such as being subject to a chain of command. The near-absolute authority of military commanders is something few non-military-affiliated Americans can fully grasp or appreciate, but obeying orders is an important aspect of military discipline. In addition, whether they served in large or small units, all veterans have experienced what it means to be a member of a team. Maximizing teamwork is a component of the military experience. But despite these and other commonalities, the experiences of student veterans may vary in important ways. For example, all students who have served in the military have experienced initial entry training, and basic training is the most common experience. But most officers do not attend basic training, and instead experience initial training at an officer’s school. Additionally, while many recent veterans have deployed for combat, not all veterans or currently serving military members have served in combat, and the number of those serving in combat is expected to decrease for the foreseeable future (Vacchi and Berger 2014).
Student veterans can feel uncomfortable on college campuses, and the culture shock of joining a campus community is part of every veteran’s college experience. Research and anecdotal observation suggest that a clash of cultures occurs when veterans come to campus (Vacchi and Berger 2014). Many veterans enter college as returning adult students, and their discipline, focus, and commitment to the college process may be different from that of traditional students. Many veterans also experience stereotyping and fear stigmatization in relation to disabilities or academic readiness (although most are academically ready). It is important for both veteran and nonveteran campus members to develop an awareness that military culture may clash with civilian culture on college campuses.
Opening Campus Dialogue
Veterans do not occupy a generic subculture, and there is no way to describe “typical” military service. Therefore, it is important to avoid making assumptions about military service and what students’ military experiences may mean for them. The idea of avoiding assumptions is not new to those doing diversity work in higher education, but how do staff, faculty, and students identify student veterans and determine the best ways of supporting them?
Engaging in campus dialogue and including veterans in these discussions can be critical to creating an open and welcoming environment for student veterans. One approach is to create a veterans task force or committee, including faculty, student affairs professionals, and administrators as well as some student veterans, to help provide oversight and advocacy for veterans as a student population. Campuses can also improve dialogue by hosting appropriate Veterans Day Week activities and events, which can include dialogue about military and veterans’ issues. Campuses might create a speaker’s bureau of individuals who are willing to visit classrooms and talk about their experiences as student veterans. Finally, institutions might offer professional development training to educate faculty and staff about the needs of veterans.
Providing Academic and Social Supports
The stigma associated with receiving special treatment can discourage veterans from self-identifying, making it difficult for institutions to match veterans with legitimate needs to relevant services. For example, higher education professionals want veterans to identify themselves and connect with the Disabilities Services Office (DSO) as necessary; but veterans, even those with severe physical disabilities, rarely see themselves as disabled and often do not want to be viewed as less than fully able. Veterans may not connect with the DSO due to expectations of a stigma associated with self-identifying as a disabled veteran. The problem of destigmatizing disability has no easy solution, and seeking ways to match disabled veterans to services is a critical challenge for higher education professionals.
To address this challenge, some institutions offer an array of basic academic accommodation services to all veterans who register with the DSO, without requiring veterans to disclose specific disabilities. To qualify for these services, the veteran can present a generic letter from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) disclosing only that the VA has identified the veteran as disabled. This typically encourages veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to register with the DSO without feeling stigmatized by identification with either of these invisible injuries, which are unfortunately viewed negatively by the public. Campuses that seek ways to reduce stigma and connect veterans with services are going a long way toward creating an inclusive and equitable environment for veterans.
A safe space such as a veterans lounge can also help establish a welcoming environment. While not essential on all campuses, in such spaces, a segment of veterans may experience the greatest sense of inclusion they will feel, or even need to feel, on campus. When considering the creation of a veterans lounge, it is important to keep in mind that on most campuses, about 10 to 15 percent of the student veteran population uses the lounge in a given semester (SVA 2011). Institutions should not expect the majority of student veterans to use services or dedicated spaces, as many veterans do not need services and almost all are commuter students who have lives, and jobs, away from campus (Radford 2011). It is also important to remember that creating a veterans lounge in an undesirable building, location on campus, or space can have a negative impact on the veteran population by discouraging veterans from using the space.
Perhaps the most important place to make student veterans feel included is the classroom. The challenge of creating inclusive classroom spaces represents one of the most important reasons to build professional development relationships between student affairs and academic affairs professionals. The typical campus will have an office or advocate for veterans within student affairs, but the most common interaction between campus representatives and student veterans will occur in the classroom. Ensuring that faculty members have a basic awareness of how to work with current and former military students is critical to making student veterans feel welcome. In addition, it is important to include meaningful language on syllabi that invites veterans to connect with faculty members at the beginning of the semester to disclose their veteran identity and to ensure that faculty members know of any accommodations or special circumstances, like medical appointments with the VA or training with the National Guard, that may interfere with normal coursework.
Simple Yet Transformative Changes
All too often, campuses focus on offering one-time events as symbols of support for the veteran community. But this approach rarely translates into meaningful change. Rather than organizing stand-alone events, a campus may provide simple, yet transformative, accommodations, extend basic services, and improve experiences in the classroom to create an inclusive and equitable environment for veterans on campus.
Radford, Alexandria W. 2011. Military Service Members and Veterans: A Profile of Those Enrolled in Undergraduate and Graduate Education in 2007–08 (NCES-163). Washington, DC: US Department of Education.
SVA (Student Veterans of America). 2011. The Dissection of an SVA Chapter. Accessed October 14, 2011. http://www.studentveterans.org/?p=1259.
US Department of Veterans Affairs. 2013. “Education Program Beneficiaries.” Washington, DC: Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. http://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/QuickFacts/Education_Beneficiaries.pdf.
Vacchi, David T., and Joseph B. Berger. 2014. “Student Veterans in Higher Education.” In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, edited by Michael B. Paulsen, 93–151. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
David Vacchi is director of veteran services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.