What It Takes To Stand Out for Veteran Students
The following interview is with Mike Connolly, director of the office of military and veteran services at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The number of veterans returning stateside and enrolling in higher education is growing rapidly, and more and more institutions are adapting to serve this audience. The University of Nebraska-Omaha was recently recognized by the Military Times as the best four-year university for veterans in the United States. In this interview, Connolly sheds some light on what it takes to adequately serve this unique population of learners and shares his thoughts on how universities can stand out when it comes to serving veteran students.
1. What are the biggest challenges veteran students face when it comes to accessing higher education?
Military veteran students have the same concerns we see a lot of times with transfer students. A huge amount of that population is 24 years old or older, they might have family already, they might have financial concerns where they have to work full time or almost full time. In addition, they might still have military obligations or residual effects of their service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and things of that nature.
We universally see that they’re coming from a very tight-knit community in the military where they have a distinct group of their peers that they’re associated with and now they’re with none, or almost none, of those peers. They’re thrown into an entirely new and unfamiliar environment, so that can certainly be a huge challenge.
2. Building on that, what are some of the challenges they face when it comes to persisting through a postsecondary degree?
Initially we see a lot of issues with on-boarding these students. There’s a huge amount of hesitancy and unfamiliarity with the systems in place and how to navigate the bureaucracy of the college experience. [We get a lot of questions like], “How do I get all my transcripts, where do they go, what forms are needed?” All of those steps are their own barriers to getting fully in the door once they’ve already applied and been accepted.
When they’re here, there are the challenges of retention and persistence. Maybe it’s been a long time since they’ve taken a math course and their skills have gotten very rusty. We need to have really smart and effective policies in place and programming to try to brush those skills up before they get knocked off-kilter. It’s a lot of more difficult to try to get a student back on track who has started off on the wrong foot rather than setting them up from the beginning. Generally, getting them involved in the university and making sure that they’re academically successful in a consistent manner is very difficult.
3. What are some of the things your institution has done to help veterans overcome these obstacles and succeed through their academic program?
We have a pretty large staff relative to what other universities are able to devote towards the veteran population and that allows us to handle a lot of those incoming requests or questions from prospective students or from new students. We can help them with that administrative process; we also do all of the certification and administration of the benefits in our office. That’s by far the biggest question that students have: “How do I use the GI Bill, which GI bill might be right for me?” We can’t make that choice for them but we can at least educate them on multiple things they might be eligible for and help them decide for themselves.
Once they’ve been brought on with the administrative processes, we have math tutors that are hired by our office that are here almost the entire 40-hour week that they can access. We have a lot of resources devoted to making calls to help these students.
One of the things we noticed that was a problem is that we have physical space — we have computer labs; we have a student lounge that’s just for military veteran students — and we had a lot of students who were accessing these [services] who were very involved in what we had to offer. That was just great, but then we had a self-sorting problem when the people who probably needed our help the most were holed up in their apartments or not coming to campus. [In essence, the veterans who could have benefitted the most from these spaces and services were not using them]. We changed focus in the last year and started making a few hundred calls every few weeks to those students in trying to learn about them and how we can help and bring them onto campus.
4. In general, what does it take for a university to really stand out as an institution that provides a positive and supportive environment for veteran students?
You have to sincerely want to tackle that problem and you have to devote whatever resources you can. For some that might be a lot more resources towards this population than others might be able to, but there needs to be something that’s very intentional that’s devoted towards this population because they have a lot of significant concerns.
It’s really about education on the part of staff and trying to learn as much as you can about your students. We have a lot of active duty airman because we’re located very close off an Air Force base, so our concerns are probably a lot different and the programming that we need to put in place has to be very closely aligned with what active duty needs are, whereas another school located in another state might have a skew much more towards a veteran population. Knowing that student population that makes up the military and veteran cohort of that school is really going to point the arrows in the right direction on what type of programming will help each individual school stand out in providing a positive and supportive environment.
5. Is there anything you’d’ like to add about your work in creating accessibility and success for veteran students and what it really takes for a university to succeed when it comes to serving veteran learners?
I would like to prompt the community of educators and student affairs professionals — anybody who might be looking at this issue — to focus on two things.
Number one is to make sure that you have as solid data as you can in tracking for these students, so you’re able to track your educational success, where they might be failing so you know what to do.
Second of all, a school should not limit themselves to just what other schools are doing for military and veteran students. Look at the whole student affairs picture and see what ideas can be brought in from advising, what ideas can be brought in from maybe housing or involvement. Try to be as creative with the program as possible and you might find something that’s really excellent that serves your students that nobody else has really done before.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator