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Veterans and Higher Education

December 9, 2011

Veterans and Higher Education

Written by James Schmeling, IVMF Managing Director & Co-founder

My colleagues and I at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University read the guest commentary by Professor Joyce S. Goldberg, “Why I can no longer teach U.S. Military History” with great interest. Goldberg shares examples from her teaching of the needs of veteran students, family members, those entering the military and those being called up in Guard and Reserve units to serve overseas. It is with some reluctance to admit that we understand her position well, and with dismay observe that many colleges and universities are still not poised to serve the needs of students seeking to make sense of their experiences after 10 years of war, or faced with the prospect of serving in the near future.

However, we find it difficult to conclude that the answer is to not teach subjects which may attract veterans and military members or their family. Instead, we must identify appropriate solutions to enable students to pursue their educational objectives, and permit faculty and researchers to continue to examine and teach subjects in which they are expert, and enhance the ability of universities to meet the needs of students outside the classroom, while facilitating success in the classroom. Goldberg suggests that the power of universities should be engaged to find appropriate solutions for veterans and their families to meet their needs, and we could not agree more.

As faculty and administrators, each of us has similar experiences with students seeking counseling, a friendly ear, to look at our programs and services through the lenses of their experiences, or in preparation for their futures. We’ve learned through our experiences of the needs these students face. And we’ve observed and heard from our colleagues that they and their faculties, departments, colleges and universities are not prepared to meet all the needs students express. Those of us who are veterans have even more students open their lives to us, as do faculty in particular disciplines–the clinical psychologist teaching intro to psychology, the historian teaching military history or the national security expert sharing their research on terrorism, counter-insurgency or nation building. Their course content or research expertise resonates with veterans who reach out to those in the civilian world who they think may understand them and their experiences. Because they feel isolated from the society which they are in, or feel that their friends and neighbors, classmates and other students, cannot understand what they’ve experienced, they seek connections. Not every faculty member or administrator is equipped to, or even willing to, engage with their students on the necessary level to support them and enhance their prospects for educational success.

The need is clear, and we believe there are some very specific solutions which may be implemented in college classrooms, in support services, among peers, and by faculty, administrators, and program staff. Some are capable of immediate implementation, while others may take planning and appropriate resourcing where they do not exist. If we are serious about the educational success, connections with the civilian world, eventual reintegration into civilian lives and the debt of gratitude we owe our nations service members, veterans and families, then we must begin to implement those we can now, and plan for the unmet needs quickly.

The first, and perhaps easiest to implement, includes training and education for faculty and staff who will be in contact with our veteran student populations. The training should include appropriate referrals for those students in need of additional help. Such training would include lists, contacts and processes for each type of referral necessary, and available in the institution of higher education or in the local community. For instance, in the case of a referral to student counseling services, training and resources would identify the principal point of contact to deal with veteran issues. For referrals to a local veterans’ administration clinics or hospitals, resources would include full directions and contact information for various administrative offices, such as career services, financial aid or others, specific contacts who are most familiar with veteran student financial aid, veteran student employment or others must be collected and packaged.

It is not sufficient to say to a student “go to the counseling center” without phone numbers, addresses and points of contact who can immediately assist the student, or worse, for the referrals to be incapable of meeting the expressed needs. In some cases, it will be appropriate to accompany the student. In others, referral may require a phone call from the person referring the student with a concern, while some services may require written referrals, and others will have specific forms, call in numbers or other means of intake. These processes must be completely up to date, with current information in formats readily available to anyone who needs them at a moment’s notice. Similar expectations should exist in other services for students–financial aid offices must be familiar with GI Bill funding and VA contacts to correct problems or seek assistance. Career services must be familiar with business and industry fears of hiring veterans and be prepared to offer needed career counseling or interface with those businesses with which they place graduates.

A second item immediately easy to implement is clear expectation and boundary setting in university, college or department policies and procedures, as well as course syllabi, along with the implementation of such boundaries in the classroom. A student who monopolizes a class with discussion about how course material relates to their military experiences must respect the learning process in the same way as any other student. A course syllabus may include a statement about respect for other class members’ learning objectives, appropriate and inappropriate topics of discussion in the class (such as modern military experiences in a course covering an earlier time period) and processes for deferring certain discussions to other times, or places. The faculty member shouldn’t enforce these boundaries differently for topics related to military service than for other topics, and this boundary setting may assist all students in the class to benefit from full class discussions which are on topic for the course. Separate discussion sessions may be appropriate in some instances for group discussion, or discussion during office hours may be preferred for those comfortable with the topics of discussion outside of the classroom. Syllabus guidelines may also spell out specific issues where a faculty member has experienced specific instances of concern regularly. For example, one clinical psychologist who teaches psychology and counseling reinforces in the syllabus the boundary between faculty/student and clinician/patient. This makes clear that care must be taken to maintain professional boundaries to be fair to student grades, faculty roles and to assure appropriate clinical care may be given to those seeking counseling rather than education.

These measures are not sufficient, but simply first steps that assume additional resources may be made available, or that clear communication may be made to students that the university or college does not intend to address these issues in the context of its higher education mission. If appropriate, referrals are available, and then the referral process will work. And, if appropriate venues for discussion, counseling and interaction with peers and interested stakeholders are available, then creating boundaries in classrooms to enhance learning and teaching is appropriate.

Beyond classrooms and administrative offices, it may be appropriate to address these issues in materials about services provided by university health and counseling services. Many health and counseling services provide immediately-needed assessment and urgent care, but refer students to off-campus resources for long-term health care or mental health supports. While this may be entirely appropriate, it is incumbent on the university to be transparent in guidelines provided to students, and particularly to veteran students and their family members. Also important is accurate and complete referral information so that students will not have to navigate difficult systems in times of crisis or difficulty, which may lead to abandonment of efforts to obtain assistance and health care.

Further efforts may include creation or expansion of programs examining current perspectives and experiences with peers, faculty experts, clinical and social psychologists, social workers, medical professionals and others. Innovative universities could build on the strengths of their experts to address the issues faced by veterans, and even more interestingly, to leverage the experiences of the veterans and their family members to create relevant, community-engaged opportunities to engage in scholarship, research, teaching and service. Students with and without direct experiences with war could learn from one another.  Veteran resource centers could provide peer supports, as well as access to veterans interested in improving campus experiences. Learning opportunities could, in fact, be created that build towards success in the classrooms, and reduce the attrition rate of veteran students. Student success would translate into employment success and reintegration. Research and scholarship success would translate into funding opportunities, and the resultant outcomes into increased success in meeting the needs of the veteran community, and those communities of which veterans and their families are a part.

Rather than being a barrier to teaching engagement and success, faculty in engaged universities may find increased opportunities to teach, to engage their students and when the boundaries are reached for engagement, to make appropriate referrals and create environments welcoming and of service to veterans who have been of service to this nation.

The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, along with our collaborators, stands ready to share lessons learned from serving veterans, their families, Guard and Reserve members and others.

A shortened and edited version of this blog post appeared as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education on November 4, 2011 at http://chronicle.com/article/Engaged-Faculty-Members-Can/129663/

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