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Combating Transition Stress among Student Veterans: Building a Community from the Ground Up
Everyone has heard about the problematic and sometimes tragic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that affects many among our military and veteran populations. There is no question that this nation needs to more fully address PTSD. What is less known, but statistically more prevalent, is transition stress.1 Leaving the military and entering civilian life presents serious challenges. The military is highly structured; time is not one’s own; group cohesion is paramount; reliance upon others is a necessity; and a shared mission is sine qua non.
Entering civilian academic life, in particular, presents a radically different environment from military life. Typically, and certainly at Manhattan College (MC), a veteran’s entering classmates are eighteen years old, away from home for the first time, and just out of high school. Those entering college directly from high school are in immediate recall of the processes of high school math and acclimated to studying for exams and writing papers—all of which may be a distant memory for a veteran who has been out of high school for four, six, or more years. Add to this list the fact that a typical full-time college student takes fifteen credits, leaving countless hours of the day and week unstructured and at the discretion of the student, and we can see how different the collegiate life is from the structured, cohesive life of military service. Combining all of these factors, one begins to sense the roots of transition stress.
Relying on friends or peers can mitigate such stress, but the predominant entering class of eighteen-year-olds is not the natural peer group for student veterans. Crudely put, while the typical entering student may be searching for phony documents to go drinking, our student veterans are very often seeking to catch up for missing academic years. Peers who can provide classroom assistance, emotional support, and knowledge about how to navigate college procedures are not easily found for student veterans, who may be reluctant to self-identify as such.
To give more support to student veterans, MC has spent the past five years building a student-veterans program from the ground up. We began a series of interrelated programs under the umbrella Veterans Success Program. One component of that endeavor is called Veterans at Ease, which brings first-semester student veterans together in a required college course and then offers them the opportunity to participate in a multiday retreat program, at no expense to them. The Veterans at Ease program and other aspects of the Veterans Success programs are aimed at fostering a sense of community among our student veterans, building a peer group that supports each other academically, socially, and emotionally. These efforts are aimed at reducing student veterans’ transition stress and promoting their academic retention to lead to their graduation and a successful postcollegiate life.
Support and serendipity
Manhattan College, located in the Bronx in New York City, is a Catholic college in the Lasallian tradition with nearly 3,300 undergraduates and 600 graduate students. While MC has a long and rich history of serving veterans, dating from the Civil War and continuing through all the major conflicts of the past century,2 we did not have a veterans center nor a designated professional whose sole responsibility was overseeing student veterans programs. That has all changed during the past five years. As our programs grew over this period, our support system has concomitantly grown. We now have a Veterans Success Center, a director of the Veterans Success Program, a director of Veterans at Ease, a coordinator of Veterans at Ease, two graduate assistants, and eighteen Veterans Affairs–funded work-study students. This is a story of growth and serendipity.
Five years ago, a student veteran came to me, a professor of Indian religious thought. After his last deployment, his commanding officer had taught him and a group of his peers some yoga, and he wanted to know more. Days later, I was introduced to the new director of transfer admissions at MC, Troy Cogburn, who then introduced me to a group of incoming student veterans. Twenty minutes into that meeting, we decided to enroll all eight of those students in my introductory religious studies course, a required MC course with a syllabus that included a section on yoga.
Since I was already scheduled to spend spring break at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas, I asked William Clyde, provost and executive vice president at MC,3 if I could take these eight students to the Bahamas for four days, explaining that such a trip fit MC’s mission and would enhance retention of these students. Despite the fact that I was then merely dreaming this stuff up, Clyde thought it was a great idea, told me to make it a program, and we were off to the races. We have not looked back, continuing to build component upon component of an evolving and enriching veterans program.
The foundation of our Veterans Success Program is a required introductory course. At MC, each undergraduate is required to take three courses in religious studies, including the 100-level course, Nature and Experience of Religion. This course, which introduces students to the diversity of ways to study religion and to the diversity of religious experiences within the world, provides us with the platform to place student veterans together. Each semester, we offer more than twenty sections of this course in a variety of formats, including a writing-intensive option, listed as RELS 151. We now also offer two sections, designated RELS 161, specifically for student veterans. These sections give veterans the opportunity to meet other veterans. Each RELS 161 section shares a common time and classroom with a general education section, RELS 110. Approximately half of the total classroom population of twenty-five students is made up of student veterans and the other half consists of traditional undergraduates. The union of these two sections helps assimilate veterans to the traditional student body. We want a successful integration, not an isolation.
Syllabi for all sections of the Nature and Experience of Religion provide an introduction to at least three different religious traditions, including one non-Western tradition. As such, educators have ample latitude to introduce ideas about the nature of mind and techniques to calm the mind—an essential process in dealing with all sorts of stress. Frequently, I have used the Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita, a battlefield story of a warrior anxiously facing his enemies, in this case his uncles and cousins. The text not only provides a forum for a discussion of the meaning of duty, or dharma, but also introduces three types of yoga to manage the restless, anxious mind of Arjuna, the main character. The parallels between this story and the issues confronting all human beings, and our student veterans in particular, are obvious.
This text allows student veterans to reflect on these ideas, knowing other student veterans have their back, and also allows traditional students and veteran students to share their insights with each other. For example, when discussing the need to breathe properly according to yogic theory, one student veteran somberly indicated that the failure of some of his men to breathe properly during a firefight might have tragically led to their inability to react and to their death. He clearly wished he had learned about yogic breathing techniques before his extensive military career. (It should be noted that as an academic course, we examine the theory behind the different types of yoga with no expectation of practice or belief in these theories.)
Beyond the classroom
The requirements for my sections of the Nature and Experience of Religion include a term paper. Each student must attend a variety of out-of-class events—such as visits to places of worship or practice, museums, and on- or off-campus lectures. Integrating the knowledge acquired at these events with the material studied in class is the foundation for the paper. Given our New York City location, students often incorporate trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they can view centuries of Christian art and compare that to a series of Christian creeds, spanning centuries of theological development, that we discussed in class. Others incorporate visits to the museum’s South Asian galleries, which include artifacts representing Hindu deities, and reflect on these images in relation to the ideas about Hinduism about which the students have read.
Since one part of the Veterans at Ease program is a multiday trip to the Sivananda Yoga Retreat run each semester for only those student veterans enrolled in RELS 161, the retreat can serve as the required outside events for their papers.4 The course subject matter offers a strong platform for the goals of the retreat program. The latter focuses on how our minds experience stress and offers a variety of techniques to manage stress. On the retreat, student veterans experience yoga postures, or asanas, a dozen or more breathing practices, guided meditations, and the ritual life of a yoga retreat center. All of these activities are resources for the students’ term papers. The retreat also offers group bonding time, which includes the simple acts of sharing meals together, swimming in the ocean, joking, more joking, and a half-day excursion such as a snorkeling boat trip. (The latter is the fiscal responsibility of the individual student veteran.)
One of MC’s partners in this project has been Warriors at Ease, a nonprofit founded in 2008 with a mission of bringing the healing power of yoga and meditation to military, veteran, and traumatized communities. Robin Carnes, cofounder of Warriors at Ease, has been our beloved and admired program architect, who also runs our daily activities, such as guided meditations, a variety of different breathing techniques to calm and to energize, lectures to explain the neuroscience behind the issues of stress, and other barrier-breaking activities. The Sivananda Yoga Retreat has been our other partner. The senior leadership includes Israeli citizens who have served in their country’s military, and their concern for and graciousness to our US veterans are palpable. Sivananda provides the daily asana practice and a peaceful, beautiful natural setting for our student veterans, faculty mentor, and Warriors at Ease trainers to bond with each other.
“We now have people we can trust,” one participating student veteran wrote about attending the retreat. “I’ve always been a very anxious and hyper person due to my ADHD. The meditations and breathing techniques have helped me clear my head since we’ve gotten back.”
“I want to say that I am happy, and I do not know the last time I was happy for no reason,” wrote another student veteran after going on the retreat.5
A cohesive community
The common religion course and the retreat have served as a foundation upon which MC has added other programs to build a cohesive student-veteran community from the ground up. Over the past five years, MC has more than tripled its student-veteran enrollment, growing from approximately 40 student veterans in 2015 to approximately 130 in 2020. It seems that admissions recruiting efforts, word of mouth, and the attractiveness of a vibrant student-veteran community for those who visit the campus have been positive factors in our increasing enrollment. Narrative evaluations—eighty-six to date—of the retreat have been overwhelmingly positive. Each semester, the numerical evaluations to our questions about the value of the retreat experiences consistently rates around 9.2 or higher on a scale of 10.
Five years ago, when this endeavor started, I assumed that the yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques would be the most important takeaways from the retreat. Back then, I assumed that PTSD was the issue. I was ignorant and oblivious to the more ubiquitous transition stress that seeps into the daily life of those going from the military to college life. Now I believe that the bonding that occurs on the retreat, combined with the stress-reduction techniques and the continued classroom interactions, has been instrumental in creating a vibrant student-veteran community that is essential in combating transition stress. The most recent comprehensive tracking study, conducted in fall 2018, shows that 91 percent of “student veterans who attended a retreat” have either continued their education or graduated, and 84 percent of “student veterans who enrolled in RELS 110” (SV 110) have continued their education or graduated.6 In a 2018 online survey conducted by the MC Student Veterans Organization (SVO), 81 percent of the retreat participants report using the Veterans Success Center, and 91 percent of retreat participants report using one or more stress reduction techniques since returning from the retreat.7
This survey also revealed that 28 percent of retreat participants have joined non-veteran organizations and clubs—an indication that student veterans are becoming integrated into the wider college community. During the 2018–19 academic year, our SVO chapter ran or cosponsored more than sixty events highlighting the vibrancy of a community willing to support each other and speak out. Each semester, our student veterans have organized several academic panels on such topics as “War and Peace,” “Women Who Served,” and “Challenges of Engineering and Mechanics in the Military.” These panels, cosponsored by academic departments, are presented to other students, faculty, and administrators and highlight the service and voices of our student veterans.
Other events are social and include barbecues, holiday parties, and an “open table” at a local coffee house/pub, where a faculty member invites all student veterans to get together once a week to talk, socialize, and share a glass. Other events are career-oriented, such as résumé-writing sessions and sessions with job recruiters seeking veteran applicants. Service events, including Adopt-a-Highway clean-ups, relief fundraising events for a hospitalized vet or a national hurricane crisis, the 22 Push-Up Challenge for suicide awareness, and Toys for Tots gift distribution, have become routine. Our annual participation in the New York City Veterans Day Parade and our on-campus Veterans Day Appreciation Luncheon bring the community together. We also invite a Warriors at Ease representative to campus during midterm and finals weeks for “stress buster” sessions. Each hourlong session includes introductions, a breathing exercise, a guided meditation, and a bit of food for socializing.
All of these events bring together different segments of our student-veteran community, and this togetherness eases transition stress. The success of this program is palpable when student veterans openly declare their appreciation of MC in front of the entire MC board of trustees and when faculty from across academic disciplines continually say how much they enjoy having our student veterans in their classes. Five years ago, twenty-five years ago, faculty did not notice our student veterans and did not comment about their presence in class. They were an anonymous cohort. That is no longer the case.
How can other institutions similarly support student veterans?
1. The MC curricular model, with a required religious studies course, will not be applicable to many colleges. Other institutions need to find a course or list of courses that nearly all student veterans would be required to take. This list could include an English, math, or introductory science course, or a combination of such courses that suit the nature of your student-veteran population and your institution’s curricula. Different retreat programs with different locations and different lengths of time can be tailored to the specific curricular goals of the courses. Explore your options; there are many.
2. Others might proclaim that their school could never afford to pay for a retreat program. MC derives 82 percent of its revenue from tuition and has a modest endowment, which does not afford the Veterans Success Program any funding. Therefore, to implement this program, focus on return on investment.
3. People have asked whether we’ve seen “jealousy or hostility” from our traditional RELS 110 students, who might also want to go on the retreat. To date, we have not been confronted with this situation. Our traditional students are supportive of MC’s service to our student veterans.
4. Finally, proudly affirm to your colleagues that your institution will “do well by doing good,” and see who supports you in your efforts to build a program that can ease transition stress for student veterans.
1. “One of the primary reasons for past failures in veteran treatments, arguably, is that the dominant focus on PTSD has obfuscated other, often highly pressing transition issues. Research has documented, for example, that many returning veterans may struggle regardless of whether they have PTSD or not. Recent population survey studies have suggested that 44% to 72% of veterans experience high levels of stress during the transition to civilian life.” Meghan C. Mobbs and George A. Bonanno, “Beyond War and PTSD: The Crucial Role of Transition Stress in the Lives of Military Veterans,” Clinical Psychology Review 59 (2018): 137–144, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2017.11.007. On this topic, see also Corri Zoli, Rosalinda Maury, and Daniel Fay, Missing Perspectives: Servicemembers’ Transition from Service to Civilian Life—Data-Driven Research to Enact the Promise of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Institute for Veterans & Military Families, Syracuse University, November 2015).
2. MC archives has a photo and the July 19, 1865, discharge papers of Private Ernst Spanger, who served in the Civil War before enrolling at MC.
3. I must express my sincere gratitude to Manhattan College for its support of this program. Troy Cogburn, Bill Clyde, and Tiana Sloan, hired as director of the Veterans Success Program, have been the most dedicated and wonderful people to work with and the success of this program rests on their shoulders.
4. For a variety of reasons, including work and family obligations, not all student veterans choose to attend the retreats. Those who do not attend the retreats write their term papers like the traditional RELS 110 students. In the statistics provided later in the article, the distinctions between these two groups are noted by SV@R, for those taking the RELS 161 and attending the retreat, and SV 110, for those who take the concomitant RELS 110 section and do not attend the retreat program.
5. These two quotations first appeared in Robin Carnes and Stephen Kaplan, “Fostering Veteran-Student Health through Stress Management: Creating Belonging and Success in a College Setting through the Veterans at Ease Program,” Bulletproofing the Psyche, edited by Kate Hendricks Thomas and David L. Albright (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2018).
6. Our extensive study regarding retention in college includes students who enrolled in our program and then continued their education either at MC or another college, the latter often due to a change in major or to relocation. Included are only those for whom we could verify continued educational status.
7. Students in the School of Continuing Education were not included in the numbers tabulated here. Students in the other five schools at MC responded to a non-required survey at a 61 percent rate.
Stephen Kaplan is professor of Indian and comparative religions at Manhattan College. His scholarship, including books and journal articles, focuses on Indian philosophy of mind, both Hindu and Buddhist. His research has frequently engaged holography as a heuristic device and involved comparative analysis with the neurosciences. He is the founder of the Veterans at Ease Program at Manhattan College.