Why We Should Celebrate and Support Student Veterans

Student veteran

Whether you are a veteran thinking about returning to college, a friend or family member of a veteran, or a higher education leader working with veteran students, it is critical to acknowledge the significant assets student veterans bring to their higher education communities. All too often the valuable skills and attributes veterans develop in the military and bring to college classes are overlooked.

Noting the strengths and positive attributes of veterans in college is frequently an after-thought as popular media focuses on their deficits and challenges through stories of returning veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) (Katopes, 2009). Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have an 11-18% risk of suffering PTSD after their service, and while many veterans may not be diagnosed with PTSD, they most likely witnessed death and suffering (Baechtold & DeSawal, 2009; Litz, n.d.). Due to the “improvements in body armor, medical treatment, and transportation from the battlefield, more members of the service are surviving the battlefield and serious injuries” (Connelly, 2012, p. 15), and enrolling in school after their military service is over.

Veterans going to college share many characteristics of the average adult learner. Most are 23 years or older, married, divorced, or supporting families, have been away from the formal classroom for several years, possess significant life experiences, demonstrate a more mature focus on learning, value the practical necessity of finding a job and career, and lastly, can be less tolerant of 18-year-olds’ attitudes and college experiences (Doe & Doe, 2010).

Many of the traits fostered through military service are valuable assets in college. Highlighting and celebrating these characteristics can assist veterans and higher education professionals working with them to reframe potential negative attitudes and anxiety. Some of these assets include:

• A strong work ethic and self-discipline
• Goal-focused approach
• Global perspective—an understanding of global conflict and issues around the world, perspectives on, and experiences with diverse cultures
• The ability to confront complex and difficult challenges
• Critical thinking and decision making
• Motivation to learn and put education into practice
• A history of selfless service
• Maturity and sense of purpose
• Self-reliance and resourcefulness
• Leadership skills
• Project management experience
• Teamwork
• Depth of character, honor, and integrity (Doe & Doe, 2010; Katopes, 2009; TILT, 2011)

Remembering and fostering these characteristics can be transformative in creating a supportive environment for veterans to transition from the military to civilian life while earning a college degree.

In addition to capitalizing on the strengths veterans bring to campus, we must also recognize the unique challenges these mature students face, and put into place support services to boost student veteran academic and personal success. The needs and issues student veterans often report include:

• Retooling of academic and study skills
• Academic advising tailored to meet veteran students’ experiences and challenges
• Career counseling, resume writing and interviewing skills
• Navigating the university bureaucracy while also navigating the VA bureaucracy
• Financial management and long-term fiscal planning
• Time management
• Challenges with sleep—disrupted, lack of, or desire to stay in bed too long
• Difficulty trusting non-military personnel
• Difficulty asking for help
• Missing the camaraderie and structure of military life
• Desire to distance self from military history
• Lack of patience for ignorant questions related to serving in the military (Doe & Doe, 2010; Rumann & Hamrick, 2009; Sander, 2013; TILT, 2011)
• Post-deployment traumatic stress counseling and other mental health support
• Testing and accommodations related to “attention and concentration difficulty, information processing challenges, learning and memory deficits, sluggish or abstract thinking, and slowed executive functions (problem solving, planning, insight, awareness, sequencing” (Connelly, 2012, p. 15).
• Identity issues related to “removal of the forced military identity” as they “struggle to re-assume roles as civilians” (Baechtold & De Sawal, 2009, p. 40).

Variations of these needs and issues were discussed at a recent VETNET meeting at Colorado State University when a panel of veteran students talked with staff and faculty about their experiences on and off campus. A significant list of support services and programs was developed to meet these challenges and maximize veterans’ assets. The initiatives, together with a campus attitude of honoring student veterans for their commitment and sacrifice, moves the community away from “pathologizing” or “problematizing” veterans.

Veterans want respect, not pity. Not all of them have PTSD or brain injuries. It is also important to understand that not all veterans have been in combat. Many student veterans do not want additional attention or special treatment based on their status. Therefore, moving away from knee-jerk negative reactions related to fear, ignorance, or stereotyping student veterans shifts the conversations and services to a positive advocacy for student success.

Focusing on student veterans’ assets fosters confidence and resiliency. Higher education leaders and student veterans can work together to improve veteran recruitment, admission, advising, retention initiatives, graduation rates and alumni connection and support.

If you’re thinking about returning to college after active duty or you have a friend or family member who has served in the military and is exploring higher education, Colorado State University has been recognized as a “Veteran Friendly” institution for a number of years. For more information about the student veteran population, check out Colorado State University’s Adult Learner & Veteran Services website at www.alvs.colostate.edu.

American Council on Education, (2008). Serving those who serve: Making your institution veteran-friendly. Georgetown University Summit for University Presidents Report.

Baechtold, M. & De Sawal, D. M. (2009). Meeting the needs of women veterans. New Directions for Student Services, 126, 35-43. DOI: 10.1002/ss.

Connelly, M. M. (2012/11). Student veterans on campus: A need for more staff training. The Bulletin of the Association of College Unions International, (pp. 12-19).

Doe, B. & Doe, S. (2010). The student-veterans are coming: Resurgence and reintegration on the post 9/11 campus. Presentation for the Colorado State University 10th Annual Diversity Conference.

Katopes, P. (2009, 3/23). Veterans returning to college aren’t victims, they’re assets. Community College Week. www.ccweek.com

Litz, B. T. (n.d.) “The Unique Circumstance and Mental Health Impact of the Wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq.” [http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/fact_shts/fs_iraqafghanistan_wars.html.]

Rumann, C. B. & Hamrick, F. A. (2009). Supporting student veterans in transition. New Directions for Student Services, 126, 25-34. DOI: 10.1002/ss.313

Sander, L. (2013/1/11). Veterans tell elite colleges: ‘We belong.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 59(18), pA1-A7.

TILT, (2011). The Institute for Learning and Teaching Student Veterans Task Force Report. Colorado State University.