Including U: Veterans in the classroom

Student veterans are a group with unique characteristics that that deserve a voice in the discourse around inclusive teaching. Since the introduction of the “new GI Bill” (properly called the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008) that provides significant financial benefits to those who serve, hundreds of thousands of active and former service members have enrolled in colleges across the United States (Barry et al. 2014, Sinski 2012). According to Jeff Cullen from the Office of Government and Community Relations, currently 459 veterans are enrolled at Georgia Tech – about 1.5% of the total student population. While this ratio is lower at GT than many other institutions, it still means that in large classes, instructors will likely have a handful of  student veterans in the audience.

What does it mean to be a veteran?

Vacchi (2012) defines student veterans as “any student who is a current or former member of the active duty military, the National Guard, or Reserves regardless of deployment status, combat experience, legal veteran status, or GI Bill use”. This definition will serve as the framework for exploring and understanding the experience of these students. If we closely examine the definition, we can see that the umbrella term “veteran” is used to describe numerous subgroups, foreshadowing the incredible diversity among veteran students.

When I set out to learn more about students veterans at GT, I was looking for a unified characteristic stemming from a common experience. It turns out, no such unified characteristic exists, because there is no common experience. Some vets have seen combat, some have not. Some got injured, some did not. Some are willing to talk about their experience, some are not. Veterans frown on the assumption that they are all alike, and with good reason. To expect veterans to be similar is akin to expecting people who have been through major surgery to somehow be alike. Being in the Armed Forces and having life-saving surgery are both significant, transformative life experiences that people process and make sense of in a multitude of ways.

In the following, I will draw on the perspectives of GT veterans and the literature, to identify some patterns among veterans as they relate to their academic success, followed by suggestions for creating a learning environment that is designed to be welcoming to students whose lives were touched by the military.

How do veterans experience the college classroom?

Before we can understand how veterans experience the college classroom, we need a glimpse of what their life is or was like in service. The military is a highly structured and strict environment. The rules are clear: everyone has their assigned duties and responsibilities that they carry out following the standing operating procedures (SOPs). Discipline is pivotal, authority is absolute, and decisions can have life or death consequences. This environment is often in sharp contrast with the college experience, so much so that student vets often experience a form of culture shock (Zinger and Cohen 2010). Andrew Hanus, a graduate student in Public Policy and City Planning, former Staff Sergeant of the Air Force, describes his transition: “The military, in a sense, has been easier. You have a lot more structure, you have expectations, duties you can’t let up on. If you fail in class, you can re-test or take the class over, but if you fail in the military you can lose your job, rank, or even your life or that of a fellow soldier. Being a student, sure, you have to get an A, but what’s the pressure? Perhaps there is peer pressure or pressure from your family, but it’s not nearly as much [as in the military]. Finding ways to fit in as a student has been troubling and a difficult balance, leading to procrastination with studies I have little interest in, and fear of losing my [military] identity.

The lack of structure can often be disorienting for student vets (Kirchner 2015). In the college environment students are expected to be agents of their own career, it is up to them what, how and how much they study. Tasks and assignments are also often broadly defined, to leave room for creativity, exploration and personal expression. Andrew also reveals that the process of learning in the military looks vastly different from what we are used to in academia: “The way we learn in the military is very different from the way we learn here at GT.  In the military, you learn things on the job, non-stop, incrementally. Myself, I went through military law enforcement training; you have different blocks, they break things up, and it varies one week to the next. For example, maybe you’d sit in class and learn about different statutes and different laws for one week. That’s supplemented with hands-on activities, like how to handcuff somebody or how to write a ticket. And then you’ll do field operations, things you can’t learn in the classroom, and it keeps changing. You get certified at some point to show that you can handle the positions you are assigned at the base, but you never stop learning. Then you have career-specific trainings, so if you’re gonna be an investigator, you’re gonna go to this school for a while, or that for a few months or a few weeks. So the training never stops. Here [at GT] you cram stuff in under 16 weeks and it is an immense amount of material you have to be fluent in for a quiz or paper.

Veterans, thus, are enculturated to be life-long learners in the military. This is a quality that the current job market highly values: the capacity for life-long learning in context is among the top ten competencies sought after by employers, as predicted for the 2020 job market (WEF 2014). On the other hand, the current school system rewards students who can absorb and regurgitate vast amounts of often abstract “material” under short periods of time – something many veterans haven’t had to do in years. It is not uncommon for service members to enlist straight out of high school and be on active duty for multiple years before leaving the Armed Forces. Andrew himself has been in the Air Force for nine years (six years active duty, then three years in the Air National Guard) before returning to a civilian school. This means that many veterans have not practiced “being a student” for many years. “I’m still trying to learn how to be a proper student.” – says Andrew, even though he has been in college for just over three years now.

soldiers jumping out of helicopterA natural consequence of enlisting after high school is that the mean age for veterans in college is 33 years (Cole and Kim 2013) in four-year institutions, in comparison to the 22 years where traditional students average. The typical veteran, therefore, has about a decade on others sitting in the same classroom. This introduces both challenges and opportunities to the classroom dynamic. “I find it challenging when I get put in a classroom with students who are academically really bright but experientially they have no knowledge at all because they have never been in the workforce. You get a lot of people who think they know how systems work in the world, like how our government systems work, but they haven’t actually worked in that realm, so it’s constantly frustrating because you have to listen to incorrect formulations all the time.” – bristles Andrew. His summary of the issue reverberates across the literature: veterans across the country find it difficult to think and work with much younger students, who not only lack the real world experience of veterans, but can often approach complex issues with naïveté and arrogance (Livingston 2009). As a consequence of their years in service, many veterans approach life with a quiet humility, they don’t take things for granted (Zinger and Cohen 2010) and they find it very frustrating when their student peers complain about minute things. “I find that I relate better to students who have taken a non-traditional route, not straight from high school to academia, who have maybe worked a few years, had some interruption.” – admits Andrew, highlighting some of the similarities between veterans and other non-traditional students.

David Ross, Director of Veterans Resource Center at Georgia Tech

David Ross, Director of Veterans Resource Center at Georgia Tech

Unfortunately, the age gap can sometimes prevent student vets from getting the help they need. David Ross, director of the Veterans’ Resource Center at Georgia Tech, a veteran himself, describes this dynamic: “Veterans may not reach out to tutors. They are in their late 20s and 30s and these tutors are much younger. They don’t want to go to talk to someone who is 18-19 years old.” Especially for veterans who held high-ranking positions in the military, having to ask for help can be embarrassing, to begin with (Livingston 2009). This is just compounded by the tutor’s age, and additional generational and experiential differences. “I’m trying to create a group of advanced students and faculty that would be willing to step up and help in that capacity (as tutors to veterans)” – David continues. If you are interested in this opportunity, please reach out to him at david.ross@vpss.gatech.edu.

service member hugging family memberTransitioning from the military world to civilian life is challenging for many students – and then we have yet to explore what it is like to be an active service member in college. Some students are sitting in our classrooms between deployments. David describes what this is like: “Deployment back and forth – [one day you are] in a heightened situation, in war, in battle. Then you come back, and now you’re  sitting in the classroom again. Then you are in theater again” –  he explains [being in theater: to be in an area where war operations are going on]. “We call it the cycle of deployment, to be going in theater and back. You are six months somewhere, and then you’re back in a Wal-Mart, shopping for groceries. This could happen multiple times during someone’s time in school – I had a student who deployed twice during his program. Someone who is a veteran is done – they are out of the military. But if you’re Guard or Reserve, you could be called in in the middle of the semester. Then when they come back, they are trying to pick up the pieces, both administratively and psychologically.

Veterans’ first-person accounts do more justice to describing the difficulty of transition than I can muster here (see Zinger and Cohen 2010). However, rooted in the same difficult, complex experience veterans bring to the classroom lies a beautiful yet often missed opportunity: learning from their experience.

Learning from veterans picture of a passport and world map

Whatever their military path has been like, veterans bring a a worldly, practical perspective few other students have.  Many of them have been to other countries, they have seen things in context, and developed skills instructors can capitalize on in the classroom. “My buddy, he is a civil engineer [in the military] – so when he deploys, he is building stuff.” – says Andrew. Imagine having a student in an engineering classroom who has all this experience building and designing things in different corners of the world. The nuance, the perspective, the applications they could share with others would undoubtedly enhance everyone’s learning. Andrew describes one such synergistic encounter from his career at Tech:

soldiers boarding aircraft in a lineFor example, my professor [Dr. Garry Gabison] asked me at the beginning of the semester to do a presentation at the end of the semester about innovation and military networks. He asked: ‘is that something you’d be willing to talk about?’ I was like, ‘yeah, I can do that’. He gave me more than enough notice to think about it. But otherwise, he never brought up my military experience.Dr. Gabison, Visiting Assistant Professor at the School of Public Policy, adds: “Each student has unique backgrounds and experiences — veterans have a wealth of the latter.  I would encourage faculty members to find a way to integrate their voice.  Other students and the class as a whole can benefit from their hands-on knowledge.

Dr. Gabison’s approach has three essential elements to effectively engage veterans in the classroom: 1. he gave plenty of advance notice to Andrew, 2. he asked Andrew privately and 3. he otherwise did not mention Andrew’s veteran status in class himself. Why do these matter?

With some exceptions, the majority of veterans prefer to keep their veteran status private when they are in college (Livingston 2009). In some cases, this desire is so profuse that it prevents student vets from seeking help, whether academic or otherwise:  “Some of that is that they are just done [with military life], some of it is that they don’t want people to know.” – explains David. “It’s the stigma; they may not want anyone to know they were in the military.” – he adds. Andrew elaborates on the same sentiment: “We will keep our veteran status on the low, because once it’s revealed, people start treating you differently, look at you differently, expect different things from you. That applies 100% in the classroom. Not so much in technical classes, but, for example, in policy classes. I can recall during my time in undergrad that I would frequently get looked at by instructors when they were looking for a specific type of response. Students will also call out and say “oh, hey, Andrew, he’s a veteran”. Yeah, thanks for telling everybody.” – he rolls his eyes. “So then they pose certain questions to you and things like that.

soldier handing something to two little kidsUpon exiting the military, veterans quickly find out that the civil society has constructed an idea of who and what veterans are that is superficial and often incorrect (Martin 2017).  Their diverse and complex experience is reduced to simplistic narratives, in which they are either “wounded warriors” or “heroes”. At best, this gets them a few awkward “thank you for your service” comments that they don’t necessarily need or want. At worst, they get denigrating comments, because some people see all soldiers as “killers” and having a knack for violence (Zinger and Cohen 2010, DiRamio et al. 2008). Between the two extremes, there are all kinds of interactions that vets recall, none of which are pleasant, but all of which are related to the stereotypic perception of what veterans are “supposed to be like”. Andrew described one such bias: expecting all veterans to represent a certain point of view when it comes to the military. In these cases, student vets are asked questions they are expected to answer in a certain fashion. “People have a lot of assumptions of how things work and then they look to you for validation. It makes it awkward sometimes, because I can describe my experience, but I’m not the person with the answers” – reflects Andrew. Things get even more complicated if their opinion clashes with that of others. “I don’t wanna make a bad impression to the whole student body, because if what I say doesn’t align with the general consensus of the class, then I become the black sheep in the classroom. So trying to avoid that becomes the game. A lot of times I won’t say anything, even when they are wrong, or their perspective is very one-sided. Those are things I’d love to highlight, but I don’t know how.

Another unpleasant scenario veterans find themselves in is being asked insensitive and intrusive questions. David provides common examples: “Students were asked [things like] ‘did you shoot anybody?’ and ‘were you in combat?’ or ‘did you carry a gun?’ “. When I ask Andrew about this, he nods in agreement: “I got a lot of those questions as an undergrad, it was asinine.” If a student has a war story, bringing up those memories can be a painful experience to begin with. To inquire about them in a public setting, such as a college classroom, no doubt results in student vets feeling alienated and exposed.

Dr. Gabison’s approach is a prime example of navigating the fine line between capitalizing on a vet’s experience and remaining respectful about their privacy. What else enables veterans to make the most of their classes?

Creating a learning environment to maximize veterans’ success

Keeping in mind that veterans are a diverse group, there are a few blanket strategies that benefit most:

Respect their privacy. Do not reveal their veteran status to the class without their prior approval, and even if they are “out” in the classroom, make no assumptions about their opinion on matters relating to their experience.

young soldier
Capitalize on their strengths. In addition to their experience, many veterans are comfortable in leadership positions. “Veterans like to lead, it’s built in. [When necessary,] I’ll take charge, I’ll go talk to the professor. That’s something to build on.” – shares Andrew. David highlights another strength he observed in his veteran students: goal-orientation. “They have a drive, they have seen things. They are not here to play games, they are self-directed, they are centered, they are here to get a degree. They have direction. They set goals, and set out to achieve them.” Leadership, goal-setting, problem solving and the many other competencies veterans bring to our classrooms can be engaged even without ever mentioning their military past.

Engineer inclusive discussions. In classes that explore topics relating to the military, make sure the discourse is not limited to one point of view, and that judgment is suspended in favor or learning (Hassan et al. 2010). Lay out ground rules so that students in the classroom maintain a standard of respect when talking about those who served. This does not mean tiptoeing around “touchy” subjects or putting veterans on a pedestal, merely a call to consider both the topics and the people involved in their complexity.

Beyond these strategies, the key to helping our diverse student veteran population succeed is gentle inquiry and signaling. They may benefit from different things, depending on their unique experiences.

Invite them to talk to you. This could be a brief announcement at the beginning of the course, bundled in with other needs for accommodation. You could include a clause on your syllabus stating your intention to make your classroom welcoming to veterans, and an invitation to discuss their needs with you in your office hours.

Work with them individually. Some veterans may approach you with unusual requests. Combat veterans often prefer to sit in close proximity to the exit, or at least in full view of entry points. Some are unnerved by backpacks. When David mentions this, I must look surprised, so he explains:  “It’s one thing that they are trained to have a clear path to an exit, and students leave backpacks around. But those are also things that often have bombs in them.” Loud noises, sudden movements or darkening a classroom (for a video, for example) can also send some veterans into “theater” mode (Sinski 2012). “There’s a vigilance going on in the classroom” – summarizes David.  “If they feel distressed, they may leave the classroom.

Watch out for signs of distress. A portion of veterans carry hidden wounds: some have traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and many experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for years after they leave the service. Both of these conditions may interfere with new learning and cognitive functioning (Sinski 2012), which could affect a student’s progress in the classroom. Sinski recommends instructional strategies like organizers and activating prior knowledge to overcome these learning difficulties – strategies that benefit all students. Moreover, PTSD and TBI are often associated with anxiety and depression (Bleich et al. 1997). Sometimes veterans are not aware of these hidden wounds, so the support of their community becomes even more important. David’s experience echoes this pattern: “I was 20 years active duty. I was combat rescue, I have friends who died in helicopter crashes. I didn’t realize that [I had PTSD] until after I retired. I had some strange thoughts. [And I was not alone], I had friends who committed suicide after they retired.” Indeed, student veterans are at high risk for suicide (Rudd et al. 2011).

David continues: “Sometimes students may not realize it until a few years after they are out. They are sitting in a classroom and something happens, and a smell, a sound, a sight brings those things back.” If you observe a significant change in a student’s progress or behavior during a semester, please consult this guide by the Counseling Center for symptoms that warrant professional help. Connect them with campus resources. If you have a student veteran who is struggling, please connect them with resources available on campus. “They may not know that there are other veterans and resources out there.” – says David. The Veterans’ Resource Center can support them by finding the right services and providing a community of peers that understand what they are going through. If you already have a “Campus Resources” section on your syllabus, adding the VRC will ensure that veterans get connected with the support structure designed to help them navigate life outside of the military.

Closing thoughts

Until recently, most efforts centered on getting veterans into colleges. The scholarly literature framed veterans’ presence in the college classroom using a deficit model; the academic discourse was, for a time, limited to exploring issues like PTSD and learning challenges. In recent years, however, authors are calling for a shift in perspective when it comes to thinking about student veterans (e.g. Hassan et al 2010): that we consider the “whole” student, and highlight their strengths, as well.

I close with a quote from DiRamio et al. (2008), that summarizes the sentiment of veterans across the board:

“[Veteran] students desire to have their instructors understand and acknowledge them. A consistent theme [is] that these students do not desire special status or unusual accommodations, but rather a sense that their professors appreciate their life circumstances, including both health and academic challenges.”

References

Barry, A. E., Whiteman, S. D., & Wadsworth, S. M. (2014). Student service members/veterans in higher education: A systematic review. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 30-42.

Bleich, A., Koslowsky, M., Dolev, A., & Lerer, B. (1997). Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression: An analysis of comorbidity. The British Journal of Psychiatry170(5), 479-482.

Brown, P. A., & Gross, C. (2011). Serving those who have served—Managing veteran and military student best practices. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 59(1), 45-49.

Cole, J. S., & Kim, Y. M. (2013). Student veterans/service members’ engagement in college and university life and education. Washington: American Council on Education.

DiRamio, D., Ackerman, R., & Mitchell, R. L. (2008). From combat to campus: Voices of student-veterans. NASPA Journal, 45(1), 73-102.

Hassan, A. M., Jackson, R. J., Lindsay, D. R., McCabe, D. G., & Sanders III, J. E. (2010). The Veteran Student in 2010: How do you see me?. About Campus, 15(2), 30-32.

Kirchner, M. J. (2015). Supporting student veteran transition to college and academic success. Adult Learning, 26(3), 116-123.

Livingston, W. G. (2009). Discovering the academic and social transitions of re-enrolling student veterans at one institution: A grounded theory (Doctoral dissertation, Clemson University).

Martin, T.L. (2017). A Theory of Veteran Identity. Theses and Dissertations–English. 53. https://doi.org/10.13023/ETD.2017.097

Roost, A., & Roost, N. (2014). Supporting veterans in the classroom. Academe, 100(3), 31.

Rudd, M. D., Goulding, J., & Bryan, C. J. (2011). Student veterans: A national survey exploring psychological symptoms and suicide risk. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice42(5), 354.

Sinski, J. B. (2012). Classroom strategies for teaching veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 25(1), 87-95.

Vaccaro, A. (2015). “It’s not one size fits all”: Diversity among student veterans. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice52(4), 347-358.

Vacchi, D. T. (2012). Considering student veterans on the twenty-first-century college campus. About Campus, 17(2), 15–21. doi:10.1002/abc.21075

WEF (2014), The Europe 2020 competitiveness report, Building a more competitive Europe, World Economic Forum, Geneva.

Zinger, L., & Cohen, A. (2010). Veterans returning from war into the classroom: How can colleges be better prepared to meet their needs. Contemporary Issues in Education Research3(1), 39.

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