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Higher Education Can Be Challenging for Veterans

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has an incredibly rich website with references to resources and research to assist all Veterans, military families and advocates with a wide array of questions. In addition to some of the most popular topic searches such as Healthcare and Disability, Education and training, and Service member benefits, the site also offers listings of job availability with the VA and support with Careers and Employment. For this particular article, I want to focus attention on the Office of Research and Development and an article I found there by Mike Richman regarding the challenges Veterans face in higher education. The article, Navigating the College Experience, was published in 2017 but I find the message to be as relevant today as it was then.

The article highlights the story of Matthew Smith, “a Marine who did two tours in Iraq and fought in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004.” Smith attended the University of California, Berkeley where he majored in social welfare so that he could counsel Veterans to help them overcome struggles in life much like he has had to do and his battle with PTSD. According to the article, “The college experience presents challenges for Veterans unlike those facing traditional students. Researchers have found higher rates of health-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, and psychological disorders, such as PTSD, among Vets in college, compared with their peers without military experience. Studies have also cited problems for Veterans in adjusting to campus life and interacting with students.”

Dr. Brian Borsari, a clinical psychologist at the San Francisco VA Health Care System and lead researcher for the Student Service Members/Veterans on Campus: Challenges for Reintegration study, noted that, “I discovered tremendous variability in the services that were offered from campus to campus and the near lack of systematic research on the topic.” Bosari’s study identified two major findings. First, that non-Veteran students lack the knowledge of Veteran student experiences and secondly that Veterans can find logistical challenges of higher ed overwhelming.

Some of the more notable differences that Veteran students have when compared to non-Veteran students include that Veterans report a social awkwardness with their non-Veteran counterparts. For Veterans the military has been an intensely structured way of life which oftentimes includes trauma from combat as well as family ties. Also, non-military students can be insensitive to Veterans and those serving in the military by asking inappropriate questions regarding their service. In addition, the article notes that, “there’s an ideological divide between Veterans and non-Veterans in college that could be dangerous to former service members with mental health conditions.”

Another finding in the Borsari study focuses on the challenges Veterans face in navigating the logistical side of higher education. For example, while in the military most resources enlisted members need will be provided to them through the military process. When on campus, military students and Veterans must learn how to manage securing these resources on their own. “Specifically, the military often uses a standardized, stepwise, and ‘hands on’ approach to teaching a skill, which is different from the more autonomous approach typically used on college campuses,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, different departments and individual professors often vary in their approaches to grading, teaching, and class requirements, whereas instruction and evaluation in the military tend to be more consistent across settings. Perhaps for these reasons, student Vets have reported that they view the campus environment as more chaotic, confusing, and less-ordered than the military environment. Adapting to this environment may result in struggles and drop-outs among student Veterans.”

In conclusion, Borsari and his colleagues recommend ways to improve life for Veterans on campus:

  • Educate faculty, staff, and students on the experiences of Veterans.
  • Improve access to health and wellness services, with an emphasis on eliminating as many “barriers to mental health treatment” as possible.
  • Improve access to Veteran academic support services to facilitate the adjustment of Vets to college and “foster connections with other students and faculty.”
  • Implement classes outside the main curriculum that are designed to help the Veteran population.

At Indiana University, students can depend on the IU Center for Veteran and Military Students. In addition, most of the colleges on campus have a DEI or Military Student and Veteran liaison who can assist with directing questions and finding resources. At the O’Neill School you can find a Veteran Community page on our Career Hub website. We are grateful to all of those who serve and have served and feel honored to assist them with their college and career needs.

By Becky Boyle
Becky Boyle Assistant Director of Career Services