John Rans, Drexel University
From 2000 to 2012, nearly one million veterans and military service members obtained educational benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. As of last year, veteran undergraduates comprise approximately 4% of the national student body, and this enrollment is expected to grow as service men and women return home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming years ("Veterans and College," 2014). An increase this large of veteran students transitioning to campus has not been seen since World War II (Whiteman, Barry, Mroczek & MacDermid Wadsworth, 2013). Mirroring national trends, the number of veteran students and veteran dependents has become more apparent within advisee caseloads. My experience working with and advising adult learners has been helpful in assisting student service members because they are not typical first-year freshman. They come to our university with rich life experiences, some being unique to the military. These students often bring great leadership skills that can benefit any campus community.
As a result of growth in the number of veteran students, my institution, Drexel University, has increased programming and practitioner training in working with this particular population over the past few years to ensure these students are being adequately served. This past year, Drexel created the Military Transition Program (MTP), which is meant for students not accepted directly into their program of choice. This program enables these students two terms, in alignment with Yellow Ribbon standards, to achieve the necessary academic requirements to matriculate into their degree program of choice. While student veterans typically have an idea about which specific major they want to pursue, personal and academic issues may arise. These issues widely range from realizing the pursuit of the originally intended major is not a great fit to coping with mental health issues. Over the past year, my unit has increasingly worked with veteran advisees, and this article is meant to share experiences working with this population and some successes of the MTP in hopes that it will resound and assist other advisors. The following are some of the personal lessons I have learned regarding this uniquely resilient population.
There is no standard veteran student. Like civilian students, veteran students possess a vast array of backgrounds, identities, and experiences. This diversity has significant value to add to the campus climate. Radford and Wun (2009) illustrate this with demographic statistics from a national study on the profile of military service members and veterans completed by the National Center for Educational Statistics. With respect to the diversity of age, 15% of military undergraduates are 19-23, 31% are 24-29, 28% are 30-39, and 25% are 40 or older. Regardless of background, every student should be treated and advised as an individual, especially in regards to their academic abilities. These students also require individualized care. I intentionally reach out during important times through the term to foster our relationship while noting their progress in transitioning to university culture, major selection, and overall academic success.
Academia can be lonely. Just as any life change warrants some type of transition, coming to college, particularly while being new to civilian life, can take some adjustment. Many students come from regimented schedules and lives to the ever changing world of higher education. In addition, the change from being part of a team of comrades to spending hours studying alone can be quite difficult. I vividly remember having one veteran advisee explain to me that he was unsure where appropriate places to eat lunch were since he was accustomed to having one designated area. This loss of friends, structure, and identity is coupled with learning to navigate a new social system that “has no clear chain of command, and is filled with many students and faculty who can’t even imagine the student veterans’ experiences” (Lighthall, 2012). This all adds to an experience that can be alienating without support services and compassionate practitioners.
Advising proactively. Military culture typically offers clear instruction and direction, which opposes the laissez faire atmosphere of a college campus. Utilizing strategic interventions with these students is often needed to ensure they stay engaged with the campus. Morse and Molina (2015) express the importance of intentionally connecting veterans to campus resources, “The U.S. Department of Education’s Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study data show that many student veterans (44 percent) report never meeting with faculty or an academic advisor outside of class—networks that help build positive connections to campus support systems” (p. 22). In the MTP, a one credit transition course is offered to bring veteran students together, help them determine their academic goals, and ensure that students know where resources are on campus. Academic advisors, faculty, and other stakeholders visit the students during this course to offer support in their transition to college life.
Defeating Stereotypes. The reintegration experience for every student veteran can be different, yet one experience often noted is a disconnect in life experience between traditional students and veteran students. These life experiences can often lead to stereotypes that keep veterans from feeling fully welcomed and engaged with the institution. A great deal of these stereotypes range from political beliefs and ideology to mental health issues. In an article on student veterans reintegrating into campus life, one veteran student from the University of Texas shared that he believed “veterans are often portrayed as broken people who struggle in civilian life” (Ayala & Strain, 2014, para. 23). I have heard several advisees share that their peers will ask inappropriate questions about their time in service or that faculty members suffer from a lack of understanding when they are part of the larger class discussions, which is the result of a lack of education about this population. As a result, our Office of Veteran Student Services created a pamphlet aimed at educating the larger community on this growing student population.
Point of Contact. Last, as academic advisors, we are expected to know the plethora of resources offered on our campuses. These relationships are very critical for this population. Over the past year, I have established collaborative partnerships with other colleagues on campus who also work with veterans so I have a support network when a situation arises that I do not know how to handle. Having points of contact across campus has been very helpful; here are some of the areas I commonly collaborate with to best serve student veterans: admissions, financial aid, counseling services, disability services, tutoring or academic coaching, faculty, and advisors or directors from other programs. Having this arsenal of contacts has been invaluable as I learn more about student vets and learn new programs that these students are interested in matriculating into.
The comradery I have experienced with my veteran advisees has been very inspiring and reminded me of the power of teamwork and collaboration, which is easy to forget yet vital to the future of higher education. It is important that institutions challenge themselves as to how their campuses are dealing with military student populations. The MTP is only in its first year, and on the advising side, I have learned a great deal about this population. On an individual note, I have heard powerful personal stories from these students that will stay with me for life. Seeing the first few cohorts of this program has taught me the importance of intentional programming designed with specific student populations in mind. The utilization of this program in conjunction with proactive advising has been very effective thus far. I am eager to continue to work with this population and see the related programming, as well as my knowledge and skills, continue to develop.
Senior Academic Advisor
Goodwin College of Professional Studies
Ayala, C., & Strain, Z. (2013, November 24). Student veterans face challenges when reintegrating into campus life. The Daily Texan. Retrieved from http://www.dailytexanonline.com/news/2013/11/24/student-veterans-face-challenges-when-reintegrating-into-campus-life
Lighthall, A. (2012). Ten things you should know about today’s student veteran. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 80-89. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/archive/53407.htm
Morse, A., & Molina, D. (2015). Military-Connected undergraduates: Exploring differences between National Guard, Reserve, Active Duty, and Veterans in higher education. Washington, DC: American Council on Education and NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Military-Connected-Undergraduates.pdf
Radford, W. W. & Wun, J. (April, 2009). A profile of military Service Members and Veterans enrolled in postsecondary education in 2007-2008. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Whiteman, S. D., Barry, A. E., Mroczek, D. K., & MacDermid Wadsworth, S. (2013). The development and implications of peer emotional support for student service members/veterans and civilian college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(2), 265-278. doi: 10.1037/a0031650
Veterans and college. (2014). Retrieved from National Conference of State Legislatures website: http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/veterans-and-college.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Rans, J. (2016, June). Intentional programming and advising for veteran students. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]