Q & A with Lincoln Walburn, Ed.D.

Dissertation topic:

“The Act of Becoming a College Student: A Case Study of Student Veterans’ Experiences Pre-During-Post Military Service.” 

H. Lincoln Walburn is associate director of Miami University’s Armstrong Student Center in Miami, Ohio, and the 2018 recipient of ACUI’s Dr. Daniel M. Maxwell Dissertation of the Year Award. He recently completed a doctorate of education at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, writing his dissertation on the topic, “The Act of Becoming a College Student: A Case Study of Student Veterans’ Experiences Pre-During-Post Military Service.” 

Walburn joined the Marine Corps Reserves his first year of college as a means of paying for school. During this time in the Marines, he served as an ammunition technician while working toward earning a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice and Master of Education in college student personnel from Western
Carolina University. 

Shortly after starting an initial position in higher education, he was deployed to Al Taqaddum, Iraq, for eight months in 2007-08. Returning home, he began to transition back to daily work and found a lack of institutional support for himself and other veterans. As he transitioned into a new position in South Texas, he began looking at the challenges that veterans face as they work on transitioning from active duty military to becoming a student, which led to his dissertation. 

While in Texas he also became involved with ACUI, volunteering within the recreation program for Region 12 before serving as chair for the final regional conference prior to the regional restructuring in 2014. He has also served on the 2015 Conference Program Team (San Antonio), on the Campus Shooting Dialogue Team (now the Emergency Management Community of Practice), and currently serves on the Clay Targets Working Group and as a member of the Education and Research Fund. 

Recently Walburn spoke with The Bulletin about his research and implications for those working in college unions and student activities. 


Your dissertation references research that shows veterans are more than 20% less likely than non-veterans to earn a bachelor’s degree and 4% more likely to drop out of college, while nearly one in three suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported over a million student veterans used benefits to advance their education and that the number is increasing by about 20% annually. Are colleges prepared to help student veterans transition to a postsecondary education and what role should the union play in that transition process? 


Colleges are becoming better prepared to assist student veterans with the transition; however, there is still some work left to do. We know institutions are generally set up to serve the traditional age student; however, the needs of the student veteran differ uniquely from those traditional age students. Student veterans may need assistance with interruptions to their education due to activations and deployments, as well as what it may mean for their classes. The admissions office staff are typically the first people veterans contact, so staff should be knowledgeable about the ways the institution is prepared to support veterans during transition. One thing discovered during my work was that a couple participants attended freshman orientation and felt out of place with traditional students, while others attended orientations designed for transfer students. Admissions offices need to ensure there is an understanding of how to work with the student veteran demographic as some may enter the university as a true freshman while others enter as transfer students. Understanding that these students are nontraditional students, there may be a need to implement an orientation geared toward just student veterans. 

Offices of veterans services have been created to help support veterans on campuses, and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education has released guidelines for effectively providing services. Such offices may not have a dedicated staff, which significantly impacts services. The student veterans I interviewed discussed struggles to get in contact with a representative due to the position having other duties outside of assisting veterans. 

Providing a safe space to gather with others of like minds and attitudes is desired by veterans, so this is a perfect opportunity for the student union. Knowing there is somewhere to go and relax when things get tough or overwhelming is a support that veterans in this study appreciated. This space also provides a veteran with a place to be themselves and know others will not be offended, where they can interact with others who may be going through a similar transition. 

Student unions should play an integral part in transitioning student veterans, providing lounge and office space for veterans and veterans services. Unions provide services for many traditional students, but services for nontraditional students are sometimes lacking. Many veterans have families, work jobs, and are older, so they may not be able to attend evening programming—that is, unless unions were to consider family-oriented programming. 

The Role of College Union statement states that the college union advances a sense of community, unifying the institution by embracing the diversity of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests. We bolster the educational mission of the institution and the development of students as lifelong learners by delivering an array of cultural, educational, social, and recreational programs, services, and facilities. With that understanding, we need to work toward ensuring that we include this demographic within our programming each year, offering opportunities for collaboration, interaction,
and communication. 


As part of your research, you interviewed five student veterans and then developed case studies of each. What were some common themes you identified in the information they shared with respect to their transformation from military personnel to college student? 


The need for a fuller understanding of the transitional and transformational experiences of student veterans is the reason my dissertation used a qualitative research approach. Qualitative researchers are interested in understanding the constructions and interpretations of reality at a particular point in time and in a particular context. The study also used a constructivism framework, which allows the researcher to interpret the participants’ experiences and construct an understanding for the reader. So, the knowledge collected through the interviews allowed me to construct an understanding of the transitional and transformational experiences of the student veterans. 

A case study explores a single system or multiple systems over a length of time, through detailed collection and reports, and a case description can be written based on themes. Utilizing a case study approach allowed for an understanding of the experiences veterans had during the transition process and if there were any injustices experienced during the transition. Using a multiple case study design fits well with this study as each participant had a different background and military experience and was enrolled at an institution in either Texas or Ohio. 

After the interviews were completed and the individual cases were analyzed, a case analysis resulted in six themes: (a) The Path is Not Straight, (b) Environments of Learning, (c) Disorienting Dilemma, (d) Uncompromising Mindset, (e) A Part of the Whole, and (f) A Shared Sense of Self. These findings begin with a theme related to an understanding of the process that each participant experienced moving from the military into the classroom: The path is not straight. The second theme takes into account the environments of learning in the military versus higher education. The third theme presents a critical event or disorienting dilemma that each veteran had to overcome or work through, some that happened in combat, others as the individual transitioned from military to civilian life. The fourth theme explains purposeful persistence as each participant plans to complete his or her degree and to be successful as a civilian. The fifth theme supports the notion that each participant experienced coming to know themselves better as an individual, moving from being a part of a team in the military to being a whole person as a civilian and student. Finally, the sixth theme shows how each participant was intentional in helping others, both in the military, and in college, albeit in different contexts and purposes. 


Reflecting again on those case studies, what were some of the challenges you identified  with respect to student veterans’ transition to postsecondary education? 


There were two major challenges that the participants brought up that have affected their transition into higher education. The first challenge that was mentioned was lack of information on the institution website geared toward veterans. Student veterans want to know what information they need to forward to the institution to gain some credit for the experience that they had in the military. Along with gaining credit for their experience, incoming students would like to know what benefit programs exist. Benefit programs not only include the G.I. Bill, but can also include programs like the Yellow Ribbon Program, the Hazelwood Act of Texas, the Ohio G.I. Promise Option, and other unique state tuition assistance programs.

The other challenge was related to the benefits they were already receiving, like when benefits were delayed or not received at all. This challenge was not something that any of the staff were able to correct because this became an issue with the government making the proper payment to the institution. When the tuition was not paid, students lost their schedule and some lost their residence hall room assignment due to nonpayment. Institutions may not be able to control this, but they could be prepared with contingency plans like providing for temporary assistance. 


Based on what you’ve learned, what services best support student veterans? 


Providing a space for student veterans is just one of the important services that these students are looking for; they also need to know who to go to when it comes to veteran benefits and the student union can often be the best location for obtaining that information. The federal government has specific paperwork requirements, just like the FAFSA, and having a dedicated individual identified within the institution to assist student veterans with assistance is necessary. 

The Student Veterans of America is a national organization that provides resources, support, and advocacy needed for veterans to succeed in higher education and following graduation. The SVA has chapters on many campuses, and those could be located in student unions where other student organizations reside. 

Finally, providing training to help groups understand what having veterans on campus means is extremely important. As part of the Department of Education’s Eight Keys to Veteran Success Sites, providing professional development to faculty and staff on this topic is key. Sometimes called the Green Zone, the program helps provide background on veterans, their training and experiences, as specifically about the cycles experienced when being deployed. The training also covers the services veterans seek out and what the best ways to talk to veterans are, including questions that should not be asked. Each Green Zone institution has a unique presentation and it is encouraged that all institutions look at this type of presentation to inform faculty and staff of the veteran demographic on campus. This training is a good way to identify individuals on campus who are open to helping veterans, and the student union staff would be ideal candidates for the program. A couple participants in this study talked about how helping with the creation and presentation of this program provided an opportunity for faculty and staff to ask questions of the student veterans, which allowed for a fuller understanding of the demographic. 


In your dissertation you point to eight keys to veteran success that were identified by the U.S. Department of Education. How might the student union facilitate any or all of these keys to success? 


College and university campuses are frequently referred to as veteran-friendly; however, this has been difficult to define. In many ways, student veterans entering or re-entering college must navigate the environment in ways that are different from the military environment. Higher education environments are unstructured compared to highly structured military environments. I believe student unions can help facilitate a number of these eight keys by providing a space for the student veterans to be comfortable while they are on campus. 

Departments within the union help with some of the keys that the Department of Education outlines, but I believe at least four of them are part of the role of the mission. The statements that I believe unions contribute to are: 

  • Create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community to promote well-being and success for veterans. 
  • Ensure consistent and sustained support from campus leadership. 
  • Coordinate and centralize campus efforts
    for all veterans, together with the creation
    of a designated space for them (even if limited in size). 
  • Provide comprehensive professional development for faculty and staff on issues and challenges unique to veterans. 

As we continue to learn more about this unique demographic, unions will have to work to be inclusive of them in addition to other nontraditional students that are increasing returning to college. This doesn’t just stop with the staff of the union, but it goes up through the administration to ensure that there is fiscal and financial support for these students. The fiscal may be as simple as a space on campus for them; however, the financial doesn’t mean giving the students the money—it means paying for staff trained appropriately to serve student veterans. This group has unique needs that may require special training and to have the financial backing of the institution is a benefit for the staff who are helping this unique demographic. 

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