The New Approach To Veteran Postsecondary Programming
The following interview is with Dennis Di Lorenzo, dean of the School of Professional Studies (SPS) at New York University (NYU) and Rebecca Anderson, director of the institution’s Student Veteran Advantage program. Many colleges and universities are trying to find innovative ways to serve new and different marketplaces, and NYU’s SPS is a leader in that space. In a recent Q&A, Di Lorenzo discussed how the Career Pathways program was a great mechanism to bring in recent graduates from liberal arts programs. In this interview, Di Lorenzo and Andersen shift their focus to a massive and growing population desperately in need of access to higher education programming — veterans — and institutions that understand and meet their unique needs.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest problems with simply offering veterans the same higher education experience as every other student?
Dennis Di Lorenzo (DDL): I wouldn’t characterize it as a problem. We have many veterans who come to our traditionally-offered programs and do very well. It’s really much more about how we’re going to augment their experience and create pathways for other veterans to capitalize on our strengths.
It’s about how we can best support them being successful in the experience. We’re not talking about programs that segregate them from other students; we’re talking about integrated programs that actually support them and focus on critical elements that will help them be successful.
Evo: What are some of the critical elements an institution needs to have in place to drive retention and success for veteran students?
DDL: First, you need an entire campus commitment to serve student veterans in the best way possible. It’s based on integration into the community and respect for their needs. Second, it’s very important for this population to create ease and accessibility to navigate through the bureaucratic process of information policy and procedures. It can become very intimidating for them when they’re exiting the military. Another important component is working with your faculty and administration, particularly with regards to understanding military culture versus civilian culture.
Additionally, and I would say this is one of the most important components of a support model, is that you use a strength-based approach. This is about capitalizing on a veteran’s strengths, as there are certain things they’ve learned in the military that enhance their skillset and we want to augment that and support them through learning how to apply that skillset. Our understanding of the reintegration challenges that veterans may face, and normalizing them, is very important for their ease in transition from service member to student.
Committing a dedicated space and environment [to veterans] is also very important — creating a sense of place around the level of support you’re providing — because it reinforces the commitment of the institution to help veterans in their studies. Also [important is] building community amongst veterans but also integrating them with other various communities that exist within our institution.
All of these elements are what we found essential if you really want to attract veterans to your program and also think about how you want to build programs in support of veterans that are cohort based because we’re looking at this both ways.
Evo: What has been the biggest challenge with getting staff, faculty and senior administrators at the institution to start to understand veterans as a very heterogeneous group?
Rebecca Andersen (RA): The biggest challenge is making the actual commitment to want to understand veterans as a heterogeneous group.
While any educational institution can have an office dedicated to student veterans, in order to ensure success, the entire campus must be committed to their reintegration into the community.
NYU-SPS is focused on training faculty and administrators to understand the normative reintegration challenges veterans experience through a six-hour training program that helps promote the understanding of military culture and its difference to civilian culture as well as to dispel the myths and beliefs many civilians hold about the military community. One needs to understand that military culture is different than civilian culture; collective versus individualistic. Being a service member has changed their worldview. Veterans were civilians before they joined the military, just like you, or me. Faculty and administration must understand the veteran’s worldview and its contrast to a civilian’s worldview.
Veterans just happen to come to campus with a different life experience than that student who has not served in the military. It’s not about considering them ‘different’ because of their service in the military, but rather using their strengths from military service along with a campus commitment to fully understanding the culture of the military to help enhance their educational experience.
Evo: What is the Student Veterans Advantage program?
DDL: In doing an assessment of the kinds of transition programs that were out there for veterans, it looked to me like they were really focused on adapting to civilian life, not really about how they now go into a higher education experience or enter back into their first civilian job.
The Advantage program is slated for that veteran who comes out and says, “I have these [skills], I may want to enter into higher education, I need to get a job, but I really don’t know where to begin. How do I capitalize on my strengths to take that next step?”
RA: We’ll be using NYU’s established educational mission while combining the extraordinary skills attained from their military service [and developing] a certificate-based program to help them with their transition. Courses dealing with learning strategies; taking those amazing soft skills they have — from military leadership, attention to detail, mission-focused mindset and effective time management, feedback — and translating them into a higher education setting. Other courses will deal with academic and professional writing, career development, critical thinking and organizational behavior and so on.
Evo: The idea of finding a balance between a reintegration program for students to either go into a career-minded civilian life pathway or a more higher ed pathway; is that balance between those two different pathways the main differentiator of the Student Veterans Advantage program?
DDL: I would say, yes, absolutely.
RA: And additionally the fact that they will be with their peers. As an element of retention and success for a student veteran, having that peer-to-peer contact and that sense of unit cohesiveness, which is actually a cardinal rule of the military, [is critical]. They’ll be more likely to be even more successful being initially integrated with peers of similar background (no matter what kind of military experience) than if they were by themselves in a classroom with the potential of feeling alienated from other peers who don’t understand their difference in worldview because of their military experience.
DDL: At the beginning. The idea is they’re going to integrate into civilian life and integrate into the classroom, but some of them need that cohort-based approach to transition into the academic world or the professional world in order to help them make that leap
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the Student Veterans Advantage program and how NYU is creating a pathway for a new group of students to come into the SPS fold?
DDL: For anybody thinking about supporting this population, resources are very important upfront. As continuing professional educators, we’re all about building a market and collecting tuition. Many times we go after these populations of students but we’re not really willing to put the resources necessary into making these students successful. While many other student veteran programs have been deemed successful, many others have missed the mark in providing student veterans the educational opportunity to use their military training and experience to ensure the attainment of their educational goals.
NYU-SPS has made that commitment to serving this population and it really is about making that commitment first, finding the resources and building the program later, in order to serve these students. We all talk about there being a market of veterans out there, but many of the programs that exist for veterans don’t have the resources for support that this population needs.
In many ways they’re failing the veterans in their programs.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator