Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karen Gross, who is the president of Southern Vermont College. In 2012, she served as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education, where she worked on initiatives involving veterans and service members and their families.
As we work to help America’s veterans and service men and women and their families succeed in higher education, it is important to create a campus environment that is welcoming. We have the same obligation toward all students arriving at Southern Vermont College: first generation students, diverse students, international students, transfer students, non-traditional students.
Of course, the needs of students vary, and we need to be careful about homogenizing. But the data reveal that students succeed and retain in higher education if they have key navigational skills and feel welcomed into and part of the higher education environment. That is why there is attention to orientation programs and first year programs and literature on “connecting” — some of the keys to student success.
SVC and other small colleges across the nation offer the kind of personalized and caring environment that helps all students adjust in their transition into higher education. At SVC, we are also working to enable our campus to be supportive of veterans as well.
Here are some specific suggestions that our campus has considered as we welcome the growing number of veterans heading back to school post-drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan.
1. Sharing their stories: Veterans and military-connected students can be invited to share their experiences including at a campus-wide event in honor of Veteran’s Day or with the college president and trustees at board meetings. On our campus, we do this often with other student groups (e.g., health care students and students who have traveled abroad). One of our first year courses is housed at the local veterans home where students listen to and engage with veterans, sharing their stories and learning from their oral histories. These opportunities matter — military culture is a mystery to those who don’t have a close family or friend who is serving or has served. The military, like academia, is filled with its own language, culture, acronyms, traditions, pomp and circumstance and regalia. At commencement we wear our own “uniform” of hoods, hats and robes. At our next forum with veteran students, it would be beneficial to hear them describe the meaning of their uniforms, medals and regalia.
Veterans will tell you that they do not want to be treated differently but they also often feel alienated within civilian culture.
2. Create a campus-based veteran job bank: Faculty, staff and trustees across our campus have connections and relationships that can lead to employment opportunities for students in general and veterans in particular. Some companies have jobs specifically set aside for returning service men and women. College leaders could work to develop these opportunities and then coordinate with their on-campus career centers to offer campus-based veteran job banks. Campuses can also link these banks into existing government or private sector run job banks so student veterans can more easily access available employment opportunities. At present, we do this informally and on a case-by-case basis. But, as a career launching college, deployment of a more organized, systemic effort would be beneficial and would ease the stress of job searches.
3. Get in the game: Many veterans are accustomed to sports that are not in our current NCAA repertoire, such as golf and bowling, but are readily available near campus. These are sports that are frequently played by those stationed here and abroad, a lesson I learned in D.C. while bowling at the Truman Bowling Alley in the White House where my limited skills were no match for the veterans with whom I played. We need to consider ways not only to offer these sports to veterans but also to create competitions and events that enable these sports to generate interest and build community among all of our students, faculty and staff. Our student life staff has arranged Midnight Bowling evenings, and we have sponsored bowling teams for local charities; we have participated in golf outings, including one as a benefit for a scholarship in the name of a student who passed away. It is not a huge leap to connect sporting events to our veteran students.
4. Make it personal: Many of the web listings for college leaders, trustees, faculty and staff simply include their names, their affiliations and academic affiliations. Why couldn’t we post a bit more information, including military service or work with the military (say, consulting or government contracting)? This could help at orientation, so that veterans recognize military connections among presenters right away. This would be an easy way for veterans or military-connected children and their parents to see, even before they arrive on campus, that many others on campus have been engaged with the services in one capacity or another. We have faculty and staff proud of growing up in the military, having military-connected spouses, parents and children. I am proud of my work with the Department of Defense, the services and the Department of Veterans Affairs during my year in D.C. working for the Department of Education and this is one of the first things I list in my online profile.
5. Research to help them make the transition: Veterans will tell you that they do not want to be treated differently but they also often feel alienated within civilian culture. There is some remarkable literature addressing the challenges that service members face as they transition from military life to civilian life. Just a few that I suggest: Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” (1994), Nancy Sherman’s “The Untold War” (2010), Emily King’s “Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans” (2011), and James Wright’s “Those Who Have Borne the Battle” (2012). And, any campus seeking to enroll more veterans should have mandatory training programs for faculty and staff, something we will be testing on our own campus this summer/fall.
I hope these steps will help institutions and those within them to more effectively welcome the men and women (and their children) who have so ably served our nation. Our tribute to them is evidenced by how we reflect on their experience within our institutions. Improving their experiences and opportunities on campus is a small price for us to pay for their bravery.