Unions Taking the Lead in Supporting Student Veterans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the number of student veterans will continue to increase by about 20% annually, and these students comprise a unique affinity group: Two-thirds are first generation college students, two-thirds are male, 85% are over 24 years old, and half are married or have children (or both). 

Student unions, and specifically veteran service offices and veteran student organizations, are not only developing and implementing unique programs to facilitate this demographic, but also are relying on resources found through relationships with government agencies like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and nonprofits. 

Dog tags. Photo by Holly Mindrup on UnsplashOne such nonprofit is the Student Veterans of America, which gathers data on student veterans and develops fact sheets like the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST), produces white papers, provides toolkits for starting university chapters, and manages active social media accounts. 

Incorporating Veterans Affairs Programs on Campus 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has several programs student veteran offices on campuses use, including the Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) initiative, designed to provide healthcare and improve the overall mental health of veterans, and a VA campus toolkit that provides faculty, staff, and administrators with resources to support student veterans. The toolkit can help facilitate outreach programs like Green Zones, programs specifically designed to prepare faculty and staff for communicating with veterans. 

Veteran resource centers in student unions at the University of New Mexico and Virginia Commonwealth University operate Green Zones, as do student affairs and diversity and equity offices at the University of Oklahoma, University of North Carolina, the University of Texas–Dallas, and the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Taken from the name of the secure international zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Green Zones offer a course to help develop a supportive campus community by learning the basics of military structure, culture, and jargon. The program most often involves roundtables, lunches, and question-and-answer series with student veterans. 

The VA provides a work-study program for student veterans taking at least nine hours of coursework per semester. The program requires the students have a job that connects them with other student veterans, and many work within the veteran service office in the student union, serving as tutors, mentors, office managers and administrators, or communications specialists. Participants in the VA work-study program also have acted as collaborators and networkers, connecting the student veteran office with other departments, such as an office of accessibility or career management centers. 

Connecting Student Veterans with One Another 

Several union-based veteran offices have implemented a program developed by the University of Michigan’s Military Support Programs and Network that provides one of the most successful tools for transitioning student veterans into higher education: peer support.  

In her book Grateful Nation: Student Veterans and the Rise of the Military-Friendly Campus, Ellen Moore notes that returning veterans feel cultural differences moving away from a hierarchical, group-oriented environment to an unaffiliated individual, where each student is responsible for their own work. 

“One strategy that many veterans found helpful was the organization of peer-based campus veterans clubs,” said Moore. “These allowed the student veterans to identify needs and create their own structures of social support.” 

The Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE) program operates on nearly 40 U.S. campuses and connects incoming student veterans with those who are trained as peer advisors. Ideally, the connection between the student veteran and peer advisor occurs during orientation. At the University of Texas–Dallas new student veterans can list their military status on their applications. These students then attend transfer student orientation, not new student orientation, where they are matched with a peer advisor.  

“We have 20 peer advisors, and they are a great way to help the new student get to know the student population,” said Lisa Adams, director of the university's Military and Veteran Center. “We’re in our third year with the program now, and I really appreciate the structure. Peer advisors can communicate with their peers online, but it also trains the advisors and allows them to develop a deeper relationship with the university. We see multiple gains.” 

At the University of Iowa, new student veterans are automatically enrolled in the PAVE program, and at the University of Maryland’s Stamp Student Center, the Veteran Student Life program incorporates PAVE at an initial orientation. Peer advisors give campus tours, then the pair shares lunch and participates in an adventures program together. 

Connecting Student Veterans with Non-Veterans 

A recent veteran student life needs assessment conducted by the Assessment and Research Office of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland found student veterans expressed a need to connect with non-veteran students. David Reese, coordinator of veteran student life in the Stamp Union, and Adams agree that it is important to have veteran student offices, lounges, and organizations based in or near the student center. 

“It’s important we’re near a lot of student services; we’re all connected, essentially,” Adams said. “It’s an environment that enhances collaboration.” 

Reese adds there needs to be more discussion about how to help veteran and non-veteran students interact with one another more easily.  

“Most people only know how to say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ to a veteran, and some veterans don’t know how to respond to that,” Reese said. “Or a veteran in a class full of 19-year-olds may not think he is being taken seriously.” 

Many campuses provide ways for student veterans to make these connections and help non-veterans understand. Florida State University’s collegiate veteran association has partnered with several university offices and organizations to sponsor a veteran's film festival since 2011. The community event includes a film designed to advance the understanding of the veteran experience, a pre-screening reception, a question-and-answer series with the directors, and other discussions.  

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities launched the Dialogues on the Experience of War grant program. One recipient worked with a group of student veterans who were embedded in English classes that explored war-related literature and film. Guest speakers were brought in, a televised town hall event was held, and the student veterans shared their experiences of working with other students during a university-wide research day. 

Creating and sustaining advisory councils and veterans alliances made up of faculty, staff, and administrators on campus, along with separate stand-alone councils with community and corporate partners, are other ways to keep collaboration between student veterans and non-veterans creative and consistent. Florida State University’s veterans alliance has 25 partners from various on-campus organizations, departments, and colleges, while the University of Texas–Dallas has a community advisory council with 23 business leaders representing companies like AT&T, JP Morgan Chase, Raytheon, Texas Instruments, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. 

“That council’s membership includes vets and advocates for vets, so as business leaders, they are invested in seeing student veterans have a successful transition,” Adams said. “They support events, share knowledge, and serve as important future connections.”
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