PLU and Student Veterans: Ask Not What They Have Done For You…

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“America’s veterans have always been a source of strength for our economy. And since its inception, the G.I. Bill has given generations of veterans the tools to successfully transition from leaders on the battlefield to leaders of business and industry. The G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 would strengthen this proven program, making it easier for veterans to get a quality education at the institution of their choice, regardless of residency.” (veterans.house.gov)

 

The GI bill has made it possible for 773,000 veterans and military family members to gain higher education. Pacific Lutheran University currently has an all time high of approximately 125 student veterans enrolled. Nationally, between 2009 and 2010 the number of veterans enrolled increased by 42 percent (www.ncsl.org). Despite the drastic growth in the number of these student veterans, they have had an epidemic of unsuccessful college careers; approximately 30 to 40 percent won’t graduate. Usually they are just returning from combat and are dealing with the difficulty that comes with reintegrating to civilian life. These obstacles include a mental or physical disability or the loss of identity. Veterans have more dimensions of life to juggle besides school; work and familial obligations usually have to take precedence over assignments. Also the schoolwork in general can seem irrelevant in light of student veterans’ real life experiences.

Between the close proximity to Joint Base Lewis McCord and the PLU’s Yellow Ribbon Act that in assistance to GI Bill makes attendance completely free, PLU is in a prime position to attract prospective student service members . But once they are enrolled what happens to them? Unfortunately, like so many universities, our standing veteran services are not adequately serving this population. Colleges are geared to a specific demographic; students ages 18-21, who are straight out of high school. Look at new student orientation for example, this is a system of familiarizing freshmen students with the campus and allows for relationships to grow between new students. Many of these students bond with students who they discover to have similar backgrounds. Colleges are not designed to foster veterans who are much older with diverse backgrounds. This leads to the veterans feeling out of place on campus, their attendance and grades suffer, and overall dissatisfaction with the college experience increases. To combat this, other colleges like Colorado State offer academic courses geared towards aiding in the transition. Some also created veteran centers located on campus that offer assistance specifically for this demographic. To the men and women who volunteered a totality of their lives to keeping America safe, college and life success should be guaranteed. To ensure this PLU needs to take the extra step and institute veteran assistance that are both accessible and effective.

Currently, PLU offers some services to their student-veteran population but even Michael Farnum admits that more could be done. Michael Farnum is an admissions councilor at Pacific Lutheran University, his clientele consist of military dependents and veterans. Besides his position at PLU, he his Co-Chair on the Washington State Military Transition Council Higher Education Working Group, where he works closely with Washington’s state legislature, advocating for the rights of veterans who are trying to improve their lives. He has seen many veterans taken over by alcoholism, drug use, homelessness, suicidal thoughts, and all over feelings helplessness. It’s baffling how the same strong men and woman who selflessly risked their lives for America, can be weak enough to fall to such petty hindrances. Farnum says this is the solution that some veterans find when their military career is over because they cannot transfer back in to the civilian lifestyle. While in the military these people work hard and follow orders to move up through the ranks. Once their military career is over, veterans worry their military success will become irrelevant and abusing drugs, alcohol or ending their lives becomes more appealing than “starting over”. Farnum easily relates to the veterans he works with because he served for 23 years in the United States Army. When he retired he experienced first hand the importance of assistance in a healthy transition. Mainly, he believes that if PLU were able to make all of the resources offered to its veterans located in one place, it would become more accessible and more veterans would be able to use the current resources. Farnum has many ideas how to assist veterans succeed in college but this is the first step PLU can take to create a campus that aids all populations.

As mentioned before, these veterans are not the run of the mill college student, they are much older, have families to support and care for, usually in addition to a full time job. Efficient use of their time is critical to maintaining a balanced life. Creating a “One stop shopping” would be the practice of having all resources that an institution offers in one building. The City College of San Francisco offers an example of the “one stop shopping” facility (Armstrong, Herbst, Leach, & McCaslin 2013). In this one building “Veterans can access information; enroll in VA healthcare on-site; and receive a comprehensive range of mental health services…and assistance in navigating VHA, college campus, and community services…evidence-based individual and couples therapies” (Armstrong, Herbst, Leach, & McCaslin 2013). Being able to offer this range of services in a single building required assistance from Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership. This is a program that is set up on several college campuses, but is dependent on the number of enrolled student-veterans. Because this specific facility offers such a wide range of services it was a costly project the agency wanted to make sure that it was reaching enough veterans to be worth the cost.

Unfortunately, at this time PLU does not qualify for the financial assistance from this agency. However, because veterans are minorities on our campus there is all the more reason to feel ostracized in facilities that are not made to welcome them. Because of this PLU would benefit from starting a smaller scale veterans center. Smaller scale does not mean less efficient or less effective. It simply means that there needs to be one location that brings together tutors, admissions counselors, social workers, faculty, and experts in veterans benefits, all of who must be willing to devote their time to a virtuous demographic. This building could also have a common area where veterans can rest or do homework between classes, this could be a place to meet other student veterans who share similar backgrounds and face the same academic and transitioning changes.

Some might rebuttal this pitch with a comment about how this will create more of a barrier between traditional students and veterans. By creating a private space for veterans to become more comfortable, this will allow them to open up in all aspects of life. A participant in the study conducted by Timothy Olsen, Karen Badger, and Michael McCuddy’s study said “You’re used to a tight knit community, but here it’s like you’re an island…I miss that camaraderie,” of his difficulty forming relationships with his peers. By creating a place for veterans to interact with one another they find someone who craves the same level of camaraderie. Another participant discussed how they sometimes offended their peers by speaking too assertively. By constantly forcing a person to do something they feel is uncomfortable, the more likely that person is to negatively associate that event. This center would encourage classroom, and later natural, interactions with traditional students by offering a comforting space for veterans to rely on.

Timothy Olsen, Karen Badger, and Michael McCuddy’s study showed that veterans have an average lower college GPA than their civilian peers (2014). The mental disorders that result from serving in the military can negatively academic performance. Around 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom have experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (ptsd.va.gov). This suggests that 11 to 20 percent of student-veterans need assistance to combat their disorder. It is also estimated that only half of veterans who have experienced PTSD have reported it (Armstrong, Herbst, Leach, & McCaslin 2013). Roughly half of the student-veteran population is suffering from this specific disorder, and therefor are more likely to suffer academically (Armstrong, & et. Al. 2013). Psychologists have been proven to help veterans through cognitive therapy. Making psychologists who are specialized in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder available in the veterans center would allow veterans to access this treatment option in their busy lives. Theoretically this would raise their GPA’s and overall academic performance.

Aside the mental disorders, their lack of time can effect a veteran’s commitment to class assignments. Prioritizing work or family leaves less time to devote to a thesis statement than traditional students, resulting in lower grades. Also the real world experiences of veterans make it difficult to see the importance of a thesis statement. The academic mindset is so far off from the military mindset. In the military every action taken has a direct cause that result in serious costs. Academics are different. A student is told what to write, a student then writes and turns in their paper, and a student receives a grade that reflects the work that is put in. Now for a veteran whose work has been reflected by real world consequences, a letter grade may seem trivial and not worth the work. As students who have only ever know the academic grading system, a letter is valuable. To capture the attention of a veteran, assignments need to be more than just a letter grade.

Bonnie Selting suggests integrating community service and academic writing to bridge the gap between real world and the academic world. Selting is an assistant director of a service learning program and the spouse of a veteran who entered college after his military career ended. Her husband like other student veterans was not excited start his education passage. This encouraged her to investigate a way to engage her husband and other student veterans. Selting reported Nesser’s study found the “most prevalent themes discovered in successful veteran service projects” included “Well structured community service programs can help ease the transition home for veterans” and “Very few university-led projects exist that seek to engage student-veterans in community service” (Doe & Langstraat 2014). Selting seeks to combine these two lacking themes within an academic writing class. Veterans would be involved in their own community, bettering the lives of their neighbors while gaining college credit. In the classroom they would write about their experience in the volunteering environment. To build off of her objective, Pacific Lutheran University’s mission is to serve the community. It would benefit the university and the student veteran population to instate a service learning writing course for veterans.

With the war in Iraq coming to an end and soldiers on their way home, the use of the GI Bill will grow exponentially. More veterans than ever will be looking for the perfect school to get their education. Pacific Lutheran University could capitalize on the influx of veterans. By instating specific services like a Veteran’s service center and academic assistance geared specifically for veterans, enrollment of the said demographic will increase.

by Emily Owens

References

Ahern, A., Bichrest, M., Bryan, A.O., Bryan, C.J., Hinkson Jr, K. (2014) Depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and grade point average among student service members and veterans. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, Vol. 51 (Issue 7), p1035-1045.

Armstrong, K., Herbst, E., Leach, B., McCaslin, S.E. (2013). Overcoming barriers to care for returning Veterans: Expanding services to college campuses. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, Vol 50 (issue 8), pvii-xiv, 8p.

Badger, K, McCuddy M.D., Olsen, T. (2014). Understanding the Student Veterans’ College Experience: An Exploratory Study. U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, 101-108.

Doe, S. & L. Langstraat, 2014. Generation vet: Compostition, student veterans and the post 9/11 university. Utah: University Press of Colorado