Class of Their Own
America’s veterans bring a unique perspective to the classroom – a maturity that can leave them feeling isolated. How students veterans are adapting.
by Matthew Pavelek
Tavia Brightwell didn’t have a whole lot in common with her classmates during her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Compared to the 18- and 19-year-old students who had just graduated high school a few months prior, Brightwell brought a whole different world of life experience.
Brightwell enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 when she was 20 years old. She served four years on active duty as an aviation maintenance administration clerk and twice deployed to Iraq – once in 2008 and again in 2010. When Brightwell left active duty and enrolled in college at the age of 24, she felt somewhat isolated among her peers.
“There I am with a wealth of life experience under my belt and deployments under my belt and having been overseas in a combat zone, sitting in a classroom with individuals that I honestly didn’t feel I had a lot in common with,” said Brightwell, now 26. “Even though I’m really only a few years older than them, I feel much older than them because of the maturity level.”
Combat to College
Brightwell’s story is by no means unique. Educational benefits for veterans have never been better, and more than 761,000 veterans and family members have taken advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill since it took effect in August 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“Oftentimes these student veterans have multiple combat deployments, are married and may have children,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Student Veterans of America and a Marine Corps veteran who deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. “They now find themselves sitting next to 18- and 19-year-old traditional students in a college setting. The acclimation process is certainly far more complex given the wide array of experiences and the new setting a student veteran may find him or herself in.”
Brightwell, an English education major with a concentration in high school teaching, didn’t seek out other veteran students during her first semester at UNCG. In fact, she avoided highlighting her own service in the Marine Corps. During the second semester, however, she learned about the Student Veterans of America chapter on campus.
“I saw a flier somewhere and I thought, ‘You know, I’m gonna check this out,’” she said. “I went and joined the SVA and now I have that as an outlet to talk to other veterans. There are always people there who I can talk to about how we’re dealing with anything that’s happening on campus or whatever. It’s truly amazing how much the organization can help us feel normal in this unfamiliar college situation.”
Veterans clubs are just one of the ways transitioning military are acclimating to campus. To accommodate the influx of veterans taking advantage of their GI Bill benefits, more schools are stepping up to provide services and programs to ease the transition.
At UNCG, transitioning veterans can take advantage of the VETS program, which provides resources to help new arrivals. The program includes Veteran’s Ally, which links a volunteer faculty or staff member to new student veterans for support throughout their transition to campus. UNCG is one of several University of North Carolina campuses that earned the Military Friendly Schools® designation from G.I. Jobs for its efforts.
Not All Schools are Equal
Stephanie Sellinger served two years in the U.S. Air Force before transitioning to the Air National Guard in 2005. While serving in the Guard, she studied rehabilitation and human services at Penn State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Education degree in 2008. Sellinger then went on to graduate school at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology in May 2012.
Sellinger said her experience between the two schools was remarkably different.
“Penn State was awesome in terms of what all they did to help the veteran students,” Sellinger said. “There was always someone there who could help you with the paperwork to make sure your tuition was covered and the money was coming in, which really made it easy to focus on my education.”
Chatham University, however, was a much smaller school and did not have a robust program in place to help military students, according to Sellinger.
“There were no veteran support meetings and there was no one really there to help you with financials and paperwork. I guess there weren’t enough veterans for the university to justify a dedicated veterans program.”
Sellinger deployed while she was at Chatham, and said there was no protocol addressing how the university would handle her situation. She was only given 14 hours’ notice, and some of her professors told her she’d have to drop out.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” she said.
Become Your Own Advocate
Sellinger decided to take action and teamed up with one of her professors, Anthony Isacco, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Chatham. Together they started the Veterans Independent Study Group with four other veteran students.
“We became advocates and talked to the dean of the department and got her involved to promote the awareness that there are veteran students on campus,” Sellinger said.
Sellinger said she learned an incredibly valuable lesson as a result.
“Each school and each state are going to vary on how military friendly they are,” Sellinger said. “The best advice I can share is to become your own advocate.”
As Sellinger found out, many schools are still struggling to accommodate veteran students, much less veterans who are women. Less than 1 percent of the population of the United States serves in the military. Of those, about 15 percent are women, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Another 589,632 serve in the Guard and Reserve.
Catherine Ward, veterans student services coordinator at California State University-Fullerton, has dedicated the past four years to understanding the special circumstances veterans go through when earning an education. She’s also worked hard to translate that knowledge into actionable plans for colleges and universities to become more military friendly, including issues unique to female veteran students (see sidebar below). The hard work is paying off.
“We’re still looking at all of our programs, but we have seen, in our own university, the work that we do with our veterans is showing indications that it is useful in regards to GPA, persistence and graduation,” Ward said.
Ward said female veterans are seeking degrees and are using GI Bill benefits at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Yet there are still very few programs designed specifically for female veterans.
“My role here is to advocate for women veterans,” Ward said. “We provide a once-a-week support group for women veterans because we understand the need to feel part of a group and eliminate that isolation, but there are some topics that women are more comfortable talking about and sharing their experience with other women.”
Services for Military Families
Since Ward is completing her certification in counseling, California State University-Fullerton provides one-on-one counseling services for its female veteran students. The university also offers a support group for military families.
Ward said it’s vital that these programs be adopted by as many schools as possible. So she routinely hosts meetings with other community colleges and universities in the area to help schools implement military-friendly programs.
“We have a monthly community brunch where we reach out to other schools and invite their women veterans to join our women veterans and we have guest speakers from the VA or the Orange County Veterans Center and from our own campus that will speak to women veterans’ issues.”
Proper Prior Planning
Regardless of gender, veterans transitioning to the classroom must be prepared academically. In the military, service members are taught the value of proper preparation and planning before any mission. Earning an education is no different. Yet many veterans fail to accurately assess their readiness to enter the classroom, said Faith DesLauriers, director of University Veterans’ Affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“For the traditional age students out of high school, being academically prepared for college level courses and adjusting to being away from home and their support systems seem to be the major challenges,” DesLauriers said. “For veterans, academic preparation is also a challenge as many have been away from the classroom for years. In contrast to traditional-aged students, veterans find it difficult adjusting back to civilian life, especially integrating into classrooms with traditional aged students with whom they feel they have little in common.”
Strength in Numbers
At San Diego State University, the veterans center is the focal point for transitioning student veterans. Nathaniel Donnelly, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq who now serves as veterans coordinator at the university’s Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center, said the center offers a wealth of services and information geared to student veterans.
“Resources include priority registration, a general studies class for military veterans, a VetSuccess representative, as well as general administrative support to provide assistance to student veterans,” Donnelly said. Importantly, it offers a place for student veterans to study or just hang out with other student veterans.
SDSU also has a Student Veteran Organization that facilitates academic success by mentoring veterans and promoting camaraderie through social events.
Don Accamando, director of Military Programs at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said this type of networking with other veteran students is crucial for new students to succeed.
“They really need to have that support network,” Accamando said. “There isn’t a shirt or banner that says ‘I was in the military,’ so sometimes it’s difficult for military students to find the other students on campus they can relate to.”
Leading the Charge
Cleveland State University’s Veteran Student Success Program (VSSP) serves as a central information point for all veterans, said Robert Shields, program coordinator. The VSSP assists veterans through every single step of the college process – from enrolling while still overseas to assisting in the application, transcript and advising processes. There is a six-person, full-time staff, as well as a representative from the VA who can answer any question or issue that arises concerning education benefits.
“(The VSSP) assists the admissions office with the application process and orientation programs to quickly engage veterans entering the university,” Shields said. “It works with the tutoring service to provide vet-on-vet tutoring particularly during the first year of college – this allows tutoring while also serving as another means for adjusting to the university culture through discussion with a veteran who has been in school for over a year.”
What About Women?
Female veterans face their own unique challenges. Here are ways one school is making a difference.
Catherine Ward, coordinator of Veterans Student Services at California State University-Fullerton, has helped target services for women veterans at her campus. She created the following checklist to help other schools become more accommodating for women veterans.
Opportunity to Connect
Providing an opportunity for female veterans to gather and share their stories, build friendships and feel safe among their peers is invaluable. Provide this opportunity by organizing support groups and meeting times throughout the week, specifically for women on campus. Also, promote women veteran community network opportunities.
Creating a mentoring program for female veterans can help familiarize the new student veteran with campus life, academic and student affairs offices, and campus resources. The friendship that develops between mentor and mentee has a lasting positive impact on their school experience and academic success.
Leadership and Empowerment
Although there are more women in the military than ever before, they are still in the minority and remain under-served and under-represented in most arenas. Connecting women veterans with leadership opportunities through campus organizations, leadership training and conferences, and through community service can boost feelings of empowerment and assist in personal and professional development.
Counseling with a Female Provider
According to a 2010 article published by the Office of Women in Higher Education and the American Council on Education, female veterans returning to college are “… less likely to seek services if their only option is a male counselor.” Having a woman academic or personal counselor available can assist in putting the fear and hesitation of seeking services at ease.
Women veterans are often the primary caretakers of their children. Providing affordable childcare on campus, reserving spaces for last-minute reservations for returning veterans, and/or collaboration with nearby community organizations can be a great help during their transition.
VA Reps on Campus
Due to work and school schedules, it is often difficult to make an appointment at the VA. Invite VA representatives to visit your campus to “get the word out” regarding services and benefits that are provided for veterans, and especially benefits that are specifically available for female veterans.
Veterans often need assistance translating the skills and abilities they acquired in the military into language that is meaningful on a résumé and significant in an interview. Assistance with job searches, résumé-building and interview skills can help female veterans boost their self-confidence, self-efficacy and career preparedness. Offer special dates and times for veterans to schedule an appointment with a career counselor who is especially trained to translate their military experience to civilian career language. Other efforts might include organizing group visits to the campus career center and locating a community educator who would be willing to do an on- campus workshop designed for female veterans.
Campus Healthcare Options
Female veterans are more likely to access health-services from private practitioners than local VA health centers. Many times, campus healthcare can be more convenient and affordable than seeking care elsewhere. Make it widely known there are health services available specifically for women on campus, such as general and reproductive health consultations and exams. Promote these services on websites, with fliers and brochures at strategic locations and during orientation and outreach events.
- Be aware of your audience. As a military veteran, you are used to dealing with other military folks. Civilians, especially younger college students, may not be as mature and as focused as you.
- Also, older civilians seem to really respect your service to our country. But younger people, like the folks you’ll meet in the classroom, may not look at your military service the same way, so don’t assume that they will show you the respect you may feel you’ve earned.
Robert Shields, coordinator of Cleveland State University’s Veteran Student Success Program, offered the following three tips for new military students:
- If you need help, ask. You are not alone.
- Embrace the potential and opportunities that come with attending college.
- Do not doubt your ability to learn and succeed. You already understand mission and hard work. These skills will help you succeed.