Last Friday, I had the pleasure of hosting ACUI Region VIII’s annual Drive-In Conference, which focused on Veteran Services and Campus Community this year, and took place up at the very beautiful new University Crossing building at UMass Lowell. This was a topic that was not in the usual wheelhouse of ACUI programs, but I was able to rely on the knowledge and experience of awesome presenters, colleagues, and the UMass Lowell Veteran Services Office to make learning happen.
It was an interesting day, with a lot of good knowledge dropped, especially by student panelists throughout a couple of our sessions. I think it was a mix of we needed to hear some of these direct observations of student veteran life and experiences, and there was a certain amount of frustration that the student panelists were also looking to vent.
A couple observations…
Don’t recreate the wheel
Throughout the day, a lot of the themes I kept hearing were similar to issues we faced in other areas… first-year student services and experience, orientation, medical affairs and mental health and wellness, and correlations with the GLBTQ student experience on many college campuses.
Orientation to the campus, to services, to the surrounding area, to work-study jobs, are all essential services we provide to our first-year and transfer students, orienting them to these basics of life at a particular institution. I think what we heard from our panelists was that because our student veterans are considered adults, rather than students, they get lost in these introductions.
One of the things they all agreed upon that was extremely helpful was early registration, at the same time as seniors on some campuses, for a variety of reasons: ability to get classes essential to moving through an academic plan as quickly as possible (which many may want to do), gives them other time to schedule work, appointments, etc once they have their academic scheduled and figured out.
This also goes to staffing. A lot of frustration was vented by panelists that veteran services at some schools is just a bullet point on one person’s job description, and that forms, processes, and policies interact more with our student veterans than our people do. You don’t have to add a full fledged staff for a Veteran’s Center if your budget doesn’t allow it, but creating a solid network of staff and faculty knowledgeable about the laws and resources that govern the student veteran experience, so that while they have to fill out all those forms, their experience is guided by people rather than a step-by-step list and policy.
Avoid negative networking
While it seems that a Veterans Lounge is a well-appreciated and very beneficial space need for the student veteran community, giving them a space to be themselves and communicate without a wall up, it can have its downfalls.
One issue to watch is that this safe space saps too much of their time and attention, keeping them from extending themselves beyond that space. While identity as a veteran should be embraced, talked about, and reflected upon, and transferable skills should be the focus for their development while at your institution, it should not be the sole area of identity development for these students during their time on our campus. Just like we don’t expect one dimensional development to be the norm for our traditional students, we shouldn’t be ok with allowing student veterans only the opportunity to flex their veteran identity muscles.
While they may be older than our traditional students, I heard multiple times students talk about how their involvement in student organizations was beneficial to their own experience as students, and many of those organizations were co-curricular (for example, Student Finance Society for one of the business majors). There is also the opportunity for student employment to capitalize on the skills of management, budgeting, supervision, and more that they honed during their years of service.
While veteran lounges and organizations are an ESSENTIAL support mechanism, they are not the only support mechanism and they are not the only outlet for student veteran activities and involvement. Diversify the audience that uses these services (dependents, community, faculty mentors, etc.), and diversify the experience of our student veterans, so their understanding of resources and opportunities is broader and more well-balanced.
Get out of their way
So, take the above bolded statement with a grain of salt.
Overall, one of the best ways to ensure a thriving student veteran community is to stay out of their way – once you have a solid and professional group of student veterans making the lounge feel like home, providing advice and mentorship to each other, and advocating for their own community to campus leadership, you just need to step back and let them do work. This group of students developed and matured in what could be argued one of the tightest knit communities in any workplace, and their commitment to each other is stronger than my commitment to a bold roast coffee every morning.
Granted, we need to step in every so often to help right the ship or get the train back on the tracks. For one instance, see Bolded Statement #2. Some of the lighter issues where we may need to help out include reminding our student veterans that their dress uniform is not appropriate interview attire, as well as reminding them that colors outside of green and grey do exist and would look good on them (this is an actual suggestion from one panel on transition issues – they’ve been wearing a uniform for the past few years and that can wreak havoc on your closet’s color spectrum).
Some of the heavier issues are mental health, family life and personal life issues, and a higher ration of suicide amongst returning veterans. We are not mental health professionals, but its darn good professional practice that your division embraces training tools like QPR, Mental Health Response Teams, etc. beyond just the folks who hold the Dean on Call phone. These are issues that the entire staff should be educated and trained on (can we ever be truly prepared?), and not singularly for our student veteran community, but for every student, staff, faculty, and community member we engage with.
So, take some time, assess where your campus and division stands in addressing our student veteran populations – which will continue to grow and continue to bring new resources, successes, and challenges as we draw down from certain engagements – and come up with a P-A-L-N like Sgt. Bilko to support and engage this community in the campus experience.