Volume 80 | Issue 6
November 2012

Student Veterans on Campus: A Need for More Staff Training

Mary M. Connelly

In July, officials at the Department of Defense Worldwide Educational Symposium reported that over the next five years, 1.4 million servicemen and women would be downsized out of the U.S. military. Many will be heading to colleges and universities to take advantage of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, which celebrated its fourth anniversary on June 1. More than 760,000 Iraq and AfghanistanVeteransCC era combat veterans (or their dependents) have used the program so far, and an additional half-million have applied for the benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs has paid more than $19 billion in tuition, fees, living stipends, book allowances, and other benefits, according to a June article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sen. James Webb, author and major sponsor of the bill, told the Army Times: “Educated veterans not only have an easier transition and readjustment period, but they boast higher incomes levels, which, in the long run increases tax revenues.”
However, “Among the approximately 800,000 military veterans now attending U.S. colleges, an estimated 88% drop out of school during their first year and only 3% graduate,” NBC News reported.

Knowing that these students are already on campus, and many more will be coming, it is imperative that campus professionals become better informed about military culture—as well as issues and concerns prevalent among military and veteran students—to assist in their personal and academic success. 

The Call for Training

While most schools are still in the early stages of developing any staff training programs, being sensitive to the needs and issues of veterans is an important step in developing a truly “veteran friendly” campus and has to play an important role in student retention. As with other specialized populations on campus, it cannot be the sole responsibility of just one office, sometimes staffed by just one person, to initiate the necessary solutions. Learning about the military, war and combat, and service members’ experience could complement a campus’s broader commitment to diversity and understanding, as is suggested in New Directions for Student Services: Creating a Veteran-Friendly Campus: Strategies for Transition Success. Greater understanding of this population by faculty, staff, and students outside the veteran services office is required to remove the invisibility and anonymity that many returning servicemen and women feel they must invoke as a result of their recent deployment and service, the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice has reported.

In July 2009, ACE issued the results of its first survey of campus programs for veterans, offering a “first of its kind national snapshot of the programs, services, and policies that campuses have in place to serve veterans and military personnel.” One of the top two VeteransBootschanges that the 723 responding institutions indicated they were considering was the provision of professional development for faculty and staff on dealing with the issues facing any service members and veterans. The second was exploring state or federal funding sources or private grants to fund campus programs.

In 2010, a new category of professional standards for Veterans, Military Programs, and Services was published by the Council for the Advancement of Professional Standards (CAS). In the standards, CAS affirmed: “VMPS [Veterans, Military Programs, and Services] must provide directly or in collaboration with the other institutional units, education, and training for faculty and staff on issues relevant to student veterans, military service members, and their family members.”

At the Department of Defense’s 2012 Worldwide Education Symposium, a follow-up report to the 2009 ACE survey produced was released sharing the results of a new survey. The new ACE report, Soldier to Student II: Assessing Campus Programs for Veterans and Servicemembers, detailed some of the gains that had been made in serving student veterans. “In the three years since the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect, colleges have nearly doubled their enrollment of veterans services, beefed up programs and services for them, and intensified marketing to recruit more. But the institutions have also lagged in training faculty and staff to be sensitive to the issues veterans face and often lack the tools to help veterans transition to campus life,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in July.

The report specifically stated that over the next five years: “Most responding campuses plan to … [increase] the number of services and programs for military and veteran students and [provide] professional development for staff on dealing with the issues facing many service members and veterans. Providing professional development for faculty members is also a top priority for institutions.”
Given an environment in which less than 1% of Americans have been in active military service during the past decade of conflict, it is important that “the campus faculty and administration learn about military culture and the impact wartime service has on service members so it does not complicate campus efforts to serve student veterans and facilitate successful transitions for veterans,” according to the New Directions for Student Services publication. 

Common Considerations for Campus Staff

While veterans need advocates on campus with an in-depth understanding of their experience, all faculty and staff can be better trained to have a basic understanding of this student population. This section provides an overview of the psychological, physical, and interpersonal issues common to student veterans.

Psychological Considerations
Veterans tend to be slightly older than their civilian counterparts, characterizing themselves as “lower in academic self-concept and higher in leadership ability compared to their peers,” according to the report Completing the Mission: A Pilot Study of Veteran Students’ Progress toward Degree Attainment in the Post-9/11 Era. Additionally, a 2007–2008 ACE study shows many are also first generation college students, male, and have at least one dependent.

Veterans are more focused and mature, “stemming in part from an understanding of cultural differences and empathy for the worldview of others” as a result of their experiences, according to the New Directions publication.

Veterans have been trained to be self-reliant and proud. In combat, they relied on fellow soldiers who they learned to trust through training and actual combat experience. They are coming from the military life of strict discipline and structure to one with little of either. They miss the camaraderie and are slow to ask for help from others, a 2011 Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice reported.

Physical Considerations
Because of improvements in body armor, medical treatment, and transportation from the battlefield more members of the service are surviving the battlefield and serious injuries, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Some veterans have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and others continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the cognitive difficulties associated with TBI and PTSD that can affect academic performance include: 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).

Other challenges often associated with difficulties in classroom performance may include the effect of additional stressors (home, work, unit, etc.), sleep disturbance, difficulty with time management, and panic attacks, as is explained in ACE’s guide Accommodating Student Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Tips for Faculty and Staff.
However, it is important to realize not all veterans have TBI or PTSD and not all individuals with TBI or PTSD are veterans.

Interpersonal Considerations
Similarly, not all veterans care to talk about their service. Many have received negative comments from students and faculty alike about their service. They may not want to share specific information about what happened. Staff need to be aware of questions that might be posed in group settings that might put a veteran in an awkward situation. One should not “out” a veteran; rather, it is betterVeteransPelosi to let an individual directly invite discussion about his or her military experience. Realize each veteran is an individual and has his or her own story. Not all loved the military. Not all hated the military. If veterans do choose to share their story, they can often add a more global perspective to enliven discussion in the classroom.

Veterans are not looking to get singled out to receive special privileges. Some are wary after hearing stories of professors railing against the military in the classroom or students asking if they have “killed anyone.” There are appropriate questions that can be asked to initiate a conversation with the veteran.

Veterans can be resistant to those who do not have a military cultural understanding. Therefore, any training session should include information about the language and traditions of the military and veteran culture, the branches, the rankings, the acronyms. It may take some time to earn veterans’ trust if one has not served or is without some link with the military, but being respectful and showing sincere concern can go a long way.

Example Campus Programs

Several campuses are leading the way in training staff in better understanding basic considerations related to student veterans and appreciating the nuances of each institution’s veteran population.

University of Kentucky
A good way to understand the students’ experience is to hear their stories directly from them. The University of Kentucky has an oral history program, “From Combat to Kentucky” (C2Ky), coordinated through the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History. C2Ky is recording stirring interviews between specially trained University of Kentucky student veterans and other student veterans. The interviews focus on each veteran’s military experience as well as their transition back into civilian life, particularly into higher education, and are available online for campus community and others to review.

University of California–Riverside
Like many campuses, the University of California–Riverside has created a Veterans Support Team with representatives from various student services departments as well as from each of the academic colleges, the chancellor’s office, and student peer educators. The team meets quarterly to discuss veteran-specific issues and program development with the departments with an eye toward collaboration and all-campus support. However, one unique component is that the team members are also responsible for disseminating veteran information within their departments and often deliver training workshops for their department.

Additionally, the University of California–Riverside has developed a workshop for graduate students working as teaching assistants or who are on teaching tracks in their doctoral programs. “This workshop will discuss barriers to learning for student veterans, help the participants critique their own teaching, identify opportunities for improvement, and learn methodologies they can implement immediately to create a more veteran friendly classroom,” said Chryssa Jones, veterans service coordinator.

Undergraduate student leaders can also participate in workshops as part of the annual campus Peer Network Training. Jones explained that “about 250 student leaders from all the different peer groups on campus attend, including our very own veteran peer educators. This workshop addresses myths and misconceptions about student veterans, includes a multimedia show about the combat experience, discusses the military culture versus campus culture, talks about ‘dumb questions’ and common issues, and lets student leaders brainstorm ways they can make campus more veteran friendly.”

Finally, through the University of California–Riverside human resources office, a group of veteran faculty and staff members meet quarterly for community building. They are encouraged to work within their departments to identify needs, make improvements, and then report back to the Veterans Support Team, “so as to collaborate and move the agenda to a campus-wide forum,” Jones said.

New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities

To share best practices for training on student veterans, a consortium of New Jersey institutions has developed several informative publications as well as a programming clearinghouse, called Operation College Promise. It also offers the first Certification for Veterans Service Providers training curriculum in the United States. The training is not restricted to New Jersey and is intended to “prepare veterans services providers with the essential tools and knowledge to assist veterans to succeed in the transition to civilian life,” according to the organization’s website. The seven training modules include content about military culture, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, invisible injuries of the current war, and best practices for veterans support services.

Partners for Veteran-Supportive Campuses

A consortium of 26 schools and the Washington State Veterans Affairs office have developed a partnership for “veteran supportive campuses.” By providing information and assistance to the state’s higher education institutions and training programs, these partners seek to: 

  • Increase awareness of veteran’s programs on and off campus.
  • Provide staff members with a core set of veteran cultural competencies.
  • Encourage campuses to implement best practices and policies designed to foster social support, acceptance, a welcoming environment, and a setting that meaningfully acknowledges the contributions of our veterans.

The consortium shares resources and best practices among the campuses as well as on its website.

Virginia Commonwealth University

With nearly 800 students receiving veterans’ benefits, Virginia Commonwealth University wanted to develop a “visible network of faculty and staff in all schools/colleges and administrative units to whom these students could go to receive assistance,” according to a press release. The result was the Green Zone program, an initiative to support student veterans that is funded by the Aurora Foundation and the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program. Participants in the Green Zone program:

  • Attend a workshop that provides information and resources related to issues student veterans face.
  • Display the Green Zone sticker outside their office door to let others know they are available to provide support and information about resources for student veterans. (Volunteers who are veterans themselves receive an enhanced “I am a veteran” sticker. Nearly 400 faculty and staff identify themselves as veterans.)
  • Be a resource to other faculty, staff, or students who may have questions about student veteran issues.

Currently, 150 faculty and staff members have become Green Zone volunteers and more are awaiting the next training.

After one year, a survey of student veterans showed that while only 48% of the 150 respondents were aware of the Green Zone program, 70% believed the campus had become more veteran friendly in the past year. Additionally, 90% said they were satisfied with their transition from military to campus life, with 70% reporting that if they had an issue/concern affecting them, they knew of someone at the university to whom they could turn. In the same way the Safe Zone program was implemented on many campuses in the 1990s to identify resources for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, the Green Zone program may be a model for training the campus community on how to better serve veterans.


Veterans are returning to campus in record numbers and have sacrificed a great deal. Now it is our turn to show them we truly appreciate it, by taking the time to learn about military culture and being proactive to ensure our campuses are veteran friendly. It is incumbent upon student affairs professionals in particular to become more informed about this population so as to better anticipate their needs and assist in their transition from the military world to the civilian and academic worlds. We can start by seeking out and facilitating training about student veterans.

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VeteransConnellyMary M. Connelly serves as the assistant dean of student affairs at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, where she has been for the past 25 years. Her responsibilities include working to build a world-class community for student veterans and their families. Connelly has served the Association in a variety of roles, including regional director, Education Council co-chair, and Conference Program Team member.