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Integrating Student Veterans into the Student Body: Embracing and Engaging

Integrating Student Veterans into the Student Body: Embracing and Engaging
Higher education institutions have the opportunity to serve as transition and integration gateways for military veterans.
As a non-traditional student attending a traditional four-year university as a student veteran, my personal journey through academic life has revealed particular issues all student veterans likely face and must address.

My Personal Journey

Upon medical retirement in 2012, I decided to complete my bachelor’s degree. My first day on campus provided me with the challenge of not only the academic rigors of being a student, but also prompted the question: “How can I integrate with the entire student body”? More simply, I was trying to figure out how I could enjoy the campus experience as a non-traditional student.

This question served as a springboard for my research and perspective on successful integration of student veterans into the academic culture.

Integrating Student Veterans

How do institutions integrate student veterans into the student body, specifically, and the campus culture, generally? Traditionally, institutions support a robust student activities schedule to ease the matriculation process. Similarly, institutions have an opportunity to facilitate successful transition from military service to civilian life for student veterans.

Challenges Abound: Veteran Student Services Office

The choice to return to higher education is one fraught with the unknown. Student veterans face not only the educational challenges confronted by all students, but may also have home, family, medical and employment concerns. A veteran student services office conceptually offers some services that may be viewed as redundant at the senior administrative levels of some institutions. At Saint Leo University, the collaborative effort between Veteran Student Services, Academic Student Support Services, the Office of the Registrar and the Office of Student Services has created an environment for student veterans to both achieve academic success and integrate fully into the campus life.

Different Needs: Academic Student Support Services and the Learning Resource Center

However, the academic needs of student veterans differ from those of traditional students. These needs include readjustment into an academic setting, study and note taking practices and, in some cases, disability services. At my home institution, these needs are met through the Academic Student Support Services office. I have been able to take advantage of peer-to peer tutoring, which created an environment where I could achieve my academic goals. I am a tutor at the Learning Resource Center on my campus and am able to interact with a variety of students that way. This has been instrumental in my integration.

Implementing Integration

Each transition experienced by veterans is different. Due to variant timelines, attempts at quantifying a “successful transition” are vague at best. Each veteran manages the transition from military to student life in different ways. As such, attempts to identify metrics that would measure successful transitions are difficult. Those institutions that support veteran student services with an understanding of the specific nature of the challenges faced, and a strong support structure, can play an integral role in successful transition by creating opportunities for integration into campus life. By embracing integration, higher education institutions become a key element in the long-term success of their student veteran population, increasing retention.

Manifesting Integration

Integration differs from transition as it speaks to the acceptance of campus culture by the student veteran and is fully supported by the institution. Here’s the best personal anecdote of transition versus integration that I can offer:

When my wife had our first child, I immediately transitioned from husband to father. The transition was made due to the necessity of the situation. However, my integration to fatherhood occurred over time, as I began to understand what exactly it meant.

For the student veteran, the transition from military to academic life is more sudden. By placing institutional focus on integration, institutions are able to embrace a diversity of thought which would enrich the campus culture and inform the student population.

Mentoring Matters

Opportunities for integration can take many forms on a campus, including campus events, veteran dialogue series or any other programs that seek to promote discourse of an  array of ideas on the campus.

Additionally, integration can be most successful with the establishment of veteran mentor programs. Mentors can have a direct, positive effect in two distinct ways. First, through peer-to-peer mentoring, veterans can assist one another in managing the academic demands they encounter. Second, traditional-aged students will have the opportunity to interact with those who have served. Opening this dialogue is crucial to bridging the gap between those who have served and those who have not.

Embracing Engagement

Engagement, through integration in campus life, is a dual investment that serves to enrich the student body and empowers the institution to become an integral player in the success of its student veteran population. By clearly recognizing the values added to the overall academic culture, institutions have a remarkable opportunity to serve as gateways for the successful transition and integration of our returning veterans, not only into the academic world, but also to establish a pattern of success as alumni of the institution.

What’s Next? Models to Build Upon Your Growing Student Veteran Population

The next article discusses models that institutions can use to build upon the growing student veteran population. While each institution differs, there exist some commonalities that can be applied for the overall health of the institution. The voice of the student veteran can make a positive impact on the institution and also on the traditional student body. The form that takes will be discussed in detail.

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