Editor's note: Pete Zrioka is a student writer in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
When I completed my four-year stint in the Marine Corps, I joined the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have employed the educational opportunities of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. The re-tooled bill provides tuition, a monthly housing allowance and an annual book stipend, setting student veterans up for a successful academic career. But easing into scholastic pursuits can be a difficult, awkward transition for veterans, who are often older than their classmates, with different experiences, needs and priorities than the average freshman.
These differences were in the forefront of my mind when I started my first semester as a 23-year-old freshman, and made for a tiring adjustment period. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person giving thought to the transition from military to student life.
Dana Weber, a doctoral student in counseling psychology in the School of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University, went as far to make it the focus of her dissertation.
Weber developed a comprehensive survey to assess veterans’ readjustment to civilian and academic life, and the ways the university could help. Her survey was sent to more than 1,300 military and veteran students enrolled at ASU. Out of the 491 responses, Weber selected 323 that met the criteria for her study: at least one combat deployment as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
Student veterans are likely to face heightened difficulties as they adjust not only to civilian life but also transition to college life. Yet, despite significant increases in enrollment with the passing of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, research on OEF/OIF service members and veterans in higher education remains limited.
“When little is known about their experiences, needs, and expectations, it becomes more challenging to develop appropriate campus programs and services, ultimately jeopardizing their academic success,” says Weber.
The study examined post-deployment psychosocial functioning and predictors of academic persistence—the decision to remain in school. It also sought to identify campus programs and services that student veterans use and others that could promote their academic success.
“We looked at the best predictors of academic persistence decisions, because that’s going to be of the most interest to the university,” says Weber. “So what is helping this population’s desire to persist in their degrees?”
She found two factors significantly predicted a veteran’s decision to stay in school: social support and a sense of fitting in—a match between the student’s beliefs, behaviors, and values and those of the university. These factors were linked with combat experience and psychological symptoms.
As expected, survey participants who reported more combat experience also reported more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, anxiety and anger/aggression. Moreover, those who reported more combat experience reported less social support and less of a sense of fitting in, and were less likely to want to stay in school than those who saw less combat. Overall, low social support and sense of fitting in were related to fewer positive decisions about staying in school.
“While surprising to most civilians, some service members and veterans want to return to combat areas in order to be with those who seem to understand them the best,” says Weber. “If we want to really serve them in the best way possible, we must foster a more positive, accepting environment for these students.”
To find out how to do this, she surveyed participants about which campus programs and services they use and asked for recommendations about what else they’d like to see offered.
About two-thirds of the students said they had used academic advising services and Veteran Benefits and Certifications. The next most commonly used services were library services, financial aid and sporting events.
Weber recommends that ASU administrators and staff target the programs and services most frequently used to bolster veterans’ perceived social support and sense of being welcomed and fitting in on campus. This is important because participants who used more campus programs and services reported more positive decisions about staying in school.
The good news is that more than 91 percent of the respondents rated ASU’s programming for military/veteran students as satisfactory or better. ASU was also recently named a “Military Friendly School” by G.I. Jobs magazine and listed in the top 30 “Best for Vets: Colleges 2010” by Military Times EDGE.
However, according to the veterans surveyed, there’s room for improvement. For instance, over 71 percent asked for increased recognition of prior military service and, in turn, college credit for military training.
The next most common request was a gathering place for veterans where they can be among people with similar experiences. I know firsthand that it can be hard to connect with fellow classmates when the majority are four or five years younger. Weber’s research shows I’m not alone.
Fortunately, ASU has already taken steps to meet this need, with the recent establishment of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center on the Tempe campus. Named after ASU alumnus Pat Tillman, who died while serving in Afghanistan in 2004, the center consolidates academic and student support services for ASU’s veterans under one roof. The center opened Aug. 19 and aims to provide a sense of community.
In addition, more than 30 percent of survey respondents recommended the following: professional development for faculty and staff on military veteran readjustment issues, better education benefits counseling, a veteran-specific orientation for new students, an improved re-enrollment process to help them restart their academic careers after deployment, and a department or center for military/veteran programming.
An additional one-fifth of respondents asked for a course designed to help veterans identify the skills needed to succeed in the college environment and to familiarize them with campus resources.
In line with that desire, ASU began offering a veteran-specific class in the Fall 2010 semester. Replacing the first-year seminar requirement, the class is offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and is open to all veterans. The class touches on academic success but mainly focuses on the adjustment from military to academic life.
The difference between an incoming veteran and an 18-year-old freshman is a world’s worth, says Todd Stricherz, the director of first-year programs for CLAS. So having a class where veterans can be with their peers is very beneficial.
Weber was also able to glean a variety of information and opinions from open-ended questions included in the survey. Veterans requested things ranging from excused absences for reservist training or VA appointments to reserved seats for late registration for those returning from deployments or training. Others expressed a desire for veteran-specific courses, such as a psychology class that deals with post-deployment adjustment issues and refresher courses prior to placement exams. Some asked for military-specific career counseling.
One veteran said, “The toughest part of the transition for me is deciding what to do next. After serving for over 25 years and two combat tours, everything else seems mundane and boring. Service members are often required to do many different jobs during their time on active duty; they are often the ‘jack of all trades and master of none.’ Career counseling to help find their passion and direction is needed.”
Weber sees this as information that is potentially very valuable to ASU, whose veteran population has increased 86 percent in two years, making it one of the largest student veteran populations in the country.
“I think ASU genuinely wants to reach out and meet the needs of the veterans,” says Weber. “But to do that most effectively, we need to know how they are functioning and hear from them what they need. I am grateful to the hundreds of students who took the time to participate in order to broaden our understanding.”
Her work sheds some light on what veterans at ASU need to succeed, helping students like me find community and success in their academic careers.
Weber is currently completing her predoctoral clinical internship at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in suburban Chicago. Funding for this research was provided in part by ASU’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs, Graduate Research Support Program and the Graduate College.