How Veteran Support Programs Are Evolving for Military-Connected Students

Barton Buechner of Adler UniversityVeteran support programs on campuses nationwide are becoming better integrated in all areas—academics, administrative, career planning, mental health and disability, and social support services, says retired U.S. Navy captain Barton Buechner, Ph.D., an expert on student veteran transitions who teaches in the M.A. in Psychology: Specialization in Military Psychology program at Adler University.

Dr. Buechner, a representative of the Veterans Knowledge Community, recently participated in the National Symposium on Military-Connected Students, which focused on higher-education issues for veterans, National Guard members, reserves, and active-duty personnel. The symposium was the seventh held to address the needs of the more than 2 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to further their education.

We spoke with Dr. Buechner about key takeaways from the symposium, why he is excited that this often-overlooked student demographic is getting attention, and how the Specialization in Military Psychology program at Adler helps provide insights into student veterans. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What Were the Big Takeaways from the Symposium?

It was exciting to see the progress schools are making in developing integrated programs that engage all aspects of the campus—including student affairs, academics, career services, research, and community resources. There have been concerns that the excitement around support systems for student veterans in higher education will eventually wear off. More schools are realizing this is a student population that brings something unique, and they’re paying more attention to it.

This year, a larger percentage of attendees were not veterans, which seems to be an emerging trend. This could help dispel the myth that it takes a veteran to do this work. Certain elements of faculty are realizing how veterans bring a new dimension to the classroom, both in discussions and in the subjects being taught.

Two of the most popular workshops focused on helping veterans to tell their stories. This is important in ways that are just now being understood. Veterans can gain a lot from higher education, but they also have much to contribute—from their experiences, values, and broadened worldview. All in all, it’s obvious that more preparation and training on military and veteran culture and experiences will be needed.

What Are Military-Connected Students?

The name up to this point has been “student veterans,” but the latest term we’re using is “military-connected students,” which makes a good distinction.

This change expands to address the understanding that:

  • First, there are students still serving in the military, so they’re not veterans—they’re still service members.
  • Second, there are family members of veterans who are students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, so they are military-connected.

The term “military-connected” serves as a much broader net that encompasses all students who are associated with the military.

What Are Veterans in Transition?

We usually think of transition for veterans as a process by which they adapt to leaving the military, in which they were part of a strongly imprinted group identity, and become an individual civilian again. This is only part of the story, and possibly why even the most well-designed and well-attended transition assistance programs are considered ineffective or a waste of time by most veterans leaving the service.

Thinking of transition as just hanging up the uniform and going out on your own can be an exercise in frustration.

The reality is military-connected students have to discover a new group identity, drawing upon and integrating what they learned in service. Thinking of transition as just hanging up the uniform and going out on your own can be an exercise in frustration. This is where mentors play a critical role.

What Are Student Veterans’ Unique Requirements?

The first need is a social connection on campus, where these students feel as though they have a place, where they feel comfortable enough to branch out and broaden their interests.

Another big, and more obvious, aspect is security: financially and emotionally. If someone isn’t advocating for these students, then nothing else is going to be good. Most military-connected students are worried about other people in their family, besides themselves.
A good mentor can guide students toward opportunities for personal reflection and self-development. Without a good mentor, no one will tell them how important this is.

Why Should Faculty Learn about Communication and Cultural Competency?

Communication is a blind spot for many veterans. The military has its own ways of communicating, which are often direct and shortened. Meaning is carried in shared symbology, and much of what is communicated is unspoken. Many of these conventions simply don’t exist outside of the service, or take different forms that are not recognizable. Veterans have to learn a form of cultural competency or intercultural dexterity that many veteran students don’t think they need, but they really do.

Since few academics have direct experience with the military, they are likely to have many misperceptions about veterans. They could misinterpret the comments and actions of some veterans as disrespectful or even threatening. This can be a major barrier to the education process.

David Chrisinger, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, made this point very effectively in his workshop on writing for veterans. Those who get their impression of veterans solely from the media and movies tend to see veterans in one of three categories:

  1. Heroes to be put on a pedestal
  2. Damaged or troubled, and needing our help and sympathy
  3. Ticking time bombs that should be feared

The truth is more complex than that. For the most part, veterans do not want to be put in any of these categories; they simply want to be listened to and accepted for who they are, flaws and all, as complete human beings.

Perhaps the greatest value teachers, caregivers, and community leaders can provide by becoming culturally competent with respect to veterans, is the ability to listen to their stories without personal judgment, to understand the important lessons about humanity that they can share with us. When we are open to this, we create safe spaces where we can all grow together.

What Are New Developments in Veteran Support Programs?

Schools across the country are becoming more aware that veteran support entails more than just having a veterans support office, veterans lounge, or having the ability to check veteran-friendly campus on a government-provided checklist. The ways to support veterans are expanding. Faculty awareness is rising, and professors are more aware of the valuable perspectives these students bring to their classes. Schools overall are working on how they include and welcome veteran students, and acknowledging the specific values and principles of veteran culture.

Corporate partners and career services are starting to emerge on campuses, targeting veteran students specifically. Companies that are interested in hiring more veterans are engaging with them early on, and helping students make strategic use of their education to best prepare them for their future.

What Are Examples of Partnerships with Off-Campus Community Organizations and Employers?

Part of the movement toward integration of student veteran support programs on campus is to include career services offices, which in turn have relationships with corporations who recruit on campus.

The development in this area is towards creating early connections for veterans with prospective employers through internships and informal information sessions. This helps veterans find mentors who can guide and motivate them towards future roles in various industries, which may include other veterans who have already made the transition.

Some specific cases:

  • At the University of Connecticut, Travelers Insurance has been particularly proactive in recruiting veterans. Many employers have extended their recruitment efforts to the campus.
  • At a community college in New York, the veteran resources director has joined the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) as a volunteer, and includes campus staff, faculty, and military-connected students in state ESGR employer awareness events.
  • At Texas A&M University, USAA insurance, a financial services and insurance company that serves the military market, offers a financial award and recognition to faculty who are particularly supportive of military students.

How Are Female Veterans Supported on Campus, and How Does It Differ from Male Veterans?

Female veteran in civilian clothes sees herself as a soldier.The first part of this is understanding the unique experience women veterans have in the service. They have been a part of one of the last traditionally all-male institutions to integrate women. Working and serving in a predominantly male environment could indicate why women veterans struggle with serious identity issues. Often, many women veterans feel the effects of “the invisible barrier” from the prior restrictions against women being in combat roles.

Civilian awareness of women veterans is likewise low, and they can easily be overlooked by campus staff. On top of that, the issue of sexual assault remains extremely difficult for victims to talk about, and can exist as an unresolved psychological and social barrier for those who have experienced it.

One way that this plays out on campus is that veteran support centers can often end up being male-oriented, and not inviting or welcoming to women. Early research in the experience of veterans in higher education has not included much on women veterans.

What Advice Do You Have for Schools Who Are Struggling to Set up Veteran Support Programs?

First, schools don’t have to do this alone. Professional associations and their conferences are a good way to connect and learn from what others are doing, and tap into national resources and knowledge.

David Vacchi, national chair of the NASPA Veterans Knowledge Community for the past two years, and the director of Veterans Services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says, “Most campuses are still supporting student veterans with a single staff member, or just a part-time staff member, but it is never too late to begin programming and support of the successful college experiences of student veterans.”

David is also a strong believer in employing nonveterans to work for campus veterans services offices. This is where Adler’s Military Psychology program can make a significant impact by helping to give nonveterans deep insights into military cultural competency.

“There simply are not enough veterans in higher education to support a veteran-only paradigm for running veterans services, and the skills and connections of existing campus staff members make them equally qualified to support the success of veterans on campus,” according to David Vacchi.

Can Research Provide a Better Understanding of Student Veterans?

Campus-centered student veteran research programs are a fairly new phenomenon, so examples are just now emerging. As is the case with most veteran-related campus initiatives, these efforts are driven by a small number of committed individuals who sought out grant funding and built a program. These centers look at ways to improve degree completion for military-connected students on a local and national level.

One area that could be further expanded is in the coordination and support of high-quality, veteran-led research. Some of the thesis capstone projects we are seeing emerge from Adler’s Military Psychology program are quite promising. Three of our first seven graduates have applied to Ph.D. programs to continue their research focus.

Students are gravitating toward forms of action research around social issues they care deeply about, and also are bringing a perspective of the positive and strength-based aspects of service culture. Topics include:

  • The role of campus involvement on the success of student veterans
  • Recognizing the differences between moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Adaptation from dependence upon military structure in the transition process
  • Transformative effects of the presence of women in the combat environment
  • Alternatives for post-combat transition using mindfulness, somatics, and positive psychology
  • Therapeutic value of agriculture environments
  • Equine- and canine-assisted programs, and use of aquatics in post-combat desensitization

Increasing participation by veterans to shape and inform research on their experience is vital for many reasons. Most importantly, it puts the focus of the research on what is significant to veterans, not someone else’s research agenda. The reason for researching should lead to a better understanding of how to best learn from the experiences of veterans. They have a story to tell, and their research will help to tell it in a scholarly and credible way.

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