Actively appreciating and valuing diversity on college campuses means knowing the backgrounds and experiences of students. Understanding student Veterans means understanding military culture, battlefield skills, and deployment related stressors. It also means listening to student stories, and understanding the unique stressors faced by student Veterans on campus.
Listen to the stories of student Veterans adjusting to different types of schools (e.g., community college, university, graduate school) by visiting the popular website Half of Us.
Additional stories on the experiences of Student Veterans can be found through the VA outreach program, Make the Connection.
Military culture and battlefield skills can be deeply internalized by many Service Members. Sometimes, core beliefs and principles learned through military service can conflict with the beliefs and principles underlying higher education. For example, following orders and respecting rank and formality may run counter to the independent thinking and informality encouraged in many classrooms.
Take a quiz on your knowledge of military experiences/terms.
View an online training by Dr. Patricia Watson. Dr. Watson provides an overview of the military and military culture, as well as deployment related experiences. The course is designed so that particular sections can be selected and viewed.
Visit "Real Warriors" to understand battlefield skills and their impact on successful reintegration.
Handout on deployment related stressors and war zone experiences.
Veterans returning from combat may face some challenges in adjusting to college life. The Returning from the War Zone Guides provide an overview of these issues. Surveys, special reports, and focus groups indicate that Student Veterans struggle with the administration of their GI benefits, academic engagement, and social relationships. Two recent reports highlight the experiences of Student Veterans on campus, both in terms of engagement with education and academic success.
Preliminary research suggests that student Veterans struggle with school administration, academic performance, and social relationship.
Student Veterans consistently report that the Post 9/11 GI Bill helped with their adjustment to school. Almost 25% of student Veterans report that the Post 9/11 bill was a major influence in their decision to pursue higher education. Nonetheless, negotiating GI Educational Benefits and transferring credits obtained while in the military are two stressful experiences reported by student Veterans.
Negotiating Government Issued (GI) Educational Benefits
Student Veterans report mixed concerns about academic success. Some report a readiness for school work that is heightened by their military experience. Other students report concerns about performing up to academic standards. Courses and trainings in the military can be quite duty-specific and practical, while college classes and assignments can be more general and abstract.
As a whole, research findings suggest that Student Veterans spend more time preparing for classes, and talking with instructors outside of class than civilian students. Student Veterans are less likely to participate in experiential learning opportunities, for example, internships or practicums. Despite obstacles and challenges, the Million Records Project found that Student Veterans are as likely to graduate as civilian students.
Student Veterans may find that they do not fit in with other college students. Finding like-minded peers on campus can be difficult. Dealing with younger students who may be perceived as being overly entitled or not serious about their studies can contribute to a sense of being different. It can be difficult for student Veterans to be patient with complaints about the daily hassles of being a student.
For examples of how Veteran experiences may contrast with student life, consider viewing these slides put together by Dr. Bill Burns at North Dakota State University.
Biases against the military may be another stressor for student Veterans. Biases can be expressed in many ways on college campuses. Professors and students may hold strong negative opinions about the military and voice them in class. Readings and assignments may be biased toward a particular perspective. Antimilitary signs and/or protestors against the military may be on campus. These kinds of biases against the military may contribute to a sense of social isolation.
Biases and stereotypes facing student Veterans are presented in this brief video made by Service Members and Veterans. Please note: some viewers may find the language and humor offensive.
Being asked inappropriate questions about their military experience, or being asked to be a spokesperson for student Veterans can also interfere with relationship building. Social interactions are also limited by competing demands. For example, although student Veterans spend the same amount of time studying as non-Veterans, they spend significantly more time working and caring for dependents. Indeed, student Veterans are often considered "nontraditional" students.
Unlike traditional undergraduates who often enroll in college immediately after high school, attend school full time, receive financial support from parents, and are single without dependents, student Veterans are older, married or coupled, attend school part-time, and are more likely to be working and using the GI benefits to pay for their education. Research shows that close to 60% of student Veterans report concerns about balancing school and other responsibilities.
Other problems that some student Veterans face are physical and emotional disabilities. Physical problems may mean that it takes a student Veteran longer to get to class. Other physical problems may interfere with note taking or classroom participation. The two most common physical disabilities are listed below. Take a moment to consider how these may impact school performance:
Up to one-third of student Veterans may be struggling with "invisible wounds" of war: traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, or major depression. These conditions can also impact school performance. For example, all three "invisible wounds" can impact the ability to concentrate and complete assignments. Find out more below in the "What is PTSD?" section of this toolkit.
Did you know?
PTSD stands for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can develop after someone has experienced a traumatic event, for example, combat or a physical or sexual assault. Although most people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life time, only a small percentage will develop PTSD. Over 90% of returning Veterans have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, however, only 10-30% will develop PTSD.
Did you know?
Traumatic events are different than daily life stressors in at least two ways. First, traumatic events are often experienced as life-threatening, and most life stressors are not. Second, our hardwired fight or flight (or freeze) response is often activated during a traumatic event. Such intense emotional reactions make traumatic events much more salient and memorable than other events. Research on deployment-related stress suggests that most Service Members experienced chronic, daily life stressors as well as traumatic events.
PTSD is a stress related disorder characterized by four symptom clusters:
Below is a link to the full diagnostic criteria:
In the classroom, or on campus, PTSD symptoms may be observable in some of the following ways:
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes created this 14 minute video to capture the experience of going to school with PTSD. Please note that this video clip contains graphic imagery that may be disturbing.
See the What Can I Do to Help? section for suggestions for how to make your classroom and campus welcoming to student Veterans.
Complete an online narrated course on Understanding PTSD that includes video clips of trauma survivors with PTSD and information on getting help.
Download a PDF booklet that covers much of the same information as the course.
Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Veterans who live with it every day. Hear their stories. Find out how treatment turned their lives around.