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CCME Grapevine 2011 December

MAE 2011 Volume: 6 Issue: 10 (December)

Why Veterans Resource Centers are Needed At Universities

by Linda Frank

The veteran population leaving active duty and returning to school is growing every year by the thousands. Today’s job prospects are difficult, with unemployment figures matching those found at the end of World War II. Clearly, veterans returning home need and deserve our assistance with education and career training, as well as with networking for available positions upon completion of their degree or certificate program.

Veterans do attempt to go back to school for a degree and to improve their opportunities for a career beyond the military, but many encounter difficulties that often end their educational pursuits. Just because veterans are returning to school does not mean they are being successful. Most veterans do not earn a degree, and while 71 percent of veterans use their GI Bill only 6 percent actually use it all.

Veteran students who drop out of higher education programs report a sense of isolation, anger, resentment and financial problems as key reasons they do not persist. What drives these reactions? In many cases it is the inability of the institution to provide adequate support for the unique needs of the veterans. Transitioning from the structured world of a military organization to ferreting out the intricacies of a university enrollment system and adapting to the campus environment is stressful and can be frustrating enough to cause many to leave. Some will pursue other institutions based on fellow veteran’s recommendations, but many will not as they expect a similarly frustrating experience.

As the awareness of the problems grow regarding veterans transitioning to campus life, needs assessments have been conducted and are continuing on campuses across the country. These needs assessments are specifically designed to identify barriers veterans encounter when returning to school. Prevalent issues these assessments report are the feeling of isolation and faculty and staff who do not have an understanding of the unique needs of veterans transitioning back to school. From the assessment results, many institutions determine a need for a resource center dedicated to supporting veteran students. These centers have become the “one-stop” shops to focus support efforts for the unique needs of the veteran student. Many of these centers have broadened their scope to include all military affiliated students in addition to veterans, such as active duty, dependents and spouses.

Conceptually, the one-stop shop is not a replacement for services already in place on campus, but rather a resource network hub staffed by veterans that have successfully made the transition and are equipped to guide or coach new veteran students. A common area in which veterans seek guidance is navigating the GI Bill or Bills, as this is an area identified to be lacking by many institutions. Some veterans are eligible for more than one GI benefit and making the decision to convert to the new Post- 9/11 GI Bill is a significant decision and one that is particular to each veteran’s situation. Frustration lies in not having adequate information or someone to help sort out the pros and cons for this decision. At some universities, staff members who advise veteran students are called transition coaches; these coaches are familiar with most, if not all, of the support services available on campus as well as some off campus. In most cases, transition coaches will be able to ease the veteran student’s frustration and provide a direct link to the support needed.

One-stop shops are physical locations veterans go to for answers to questions, guidance to available support, study areas, and most importantly, to network with fellow veteran students. Peer-to-peer (vet-to-vet) mentoring has been reported to be one of the most powerful benefits of these centers and encouraging this veteran-to-veteran support provides an opportunity for them to re-embrace the camaraderie they shared while on active duty.

The mission of a one-stop shop is to provide a location for all military and veteran students to simplify the transition process from the military to the academic environment.

It is at the institution’s own discretion how this transition assistance is provided at their resource center and it is based on available resources such as staffing, including full time and part time, student assistants, Veterans Administration work study students (paid by VA) or volunteers, and available space, such as study space and a computer center to support coursework, lounge area for peer networking, private office for counseling/ advising, veteran housing, etc.

There are other names for these one-stop shops used at institutions across the country such as: Veterans Resource Center (University of Kentucky, University of New Mexico), Veteran’s Center (Southern Illinois University Carbondale, San Diego State University), Military and Veterans Resource Center (University of North Florida, University of West Florida), and Veteran Academic Resource Center (University of Central Florida). The names may be different but the concept is the same: a one-stop solution for veteran’s needs. I have listed a variety of examples in hopes that those schools that as yet do not have a veteran resource center will be inspired to build one. Only 22 percent of postsecondary institutions with services for military students and veterans provide transition assistance. As previously stated, the support services provided depends on the resources available for each institution.

Opening a veterans resource center does not guarantee success. A foundation of support for the center must be built around campus; this can be done by first creating a veterans support or advisory committee consisting of leaders from departments on campus (deans, registrar, financial aid, admissions, health and wellness counseling, etc.). It is most important to include veteran students. Veteran students know firsthand from their experience on campus the specific services the center can be most helpful providing. This committee can help with the initial planning of the center as well as ongoing communication when the center is up and running, with the intent being to learn what is needed compared to what exists and how to close the gap. A successful business model for services is to determine what the client needs and then give it to them.

Most campuses have staff and faculty who are veterans themselves or non-veterans who are eager for an opportunity to assist veteran students. Certainly I have found that to be the case at the University of West Florida. The staff and faculty have already been helping veteran students in their individual areas of the campus but are unknown to each other. This silo effect can be eliminated with a veterans resource center, effectively connecting these individual support functions through a communication network.

While a veterans resource center can make a difference for veterans transitioning to campus life for academics, there is another area that should be strongly considered as well. A report released from the National Center for Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah suggests veteran students have a suicide attempt rate six times higher than the average college student. The study also indicates nearly half of veteran students show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A key component of the veterans resource center would be on-campus counselors trained and ready to support combat war veterans attending classes. Training is available for veteran resource center staff members in suicide prevention techniques such as QPR (question, persuade and refer) Gatekeeper. This sort of training will teach staff how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and to refer veterans to the help they need.

There can be many facets of a veterans resource center. The primary functions must be a physical place where veteran students can be with fellow veterans, receive effective transition assistance they are comfortable and confident with, and can learn the processes of the university and the GI Bill benefits and build an education plan. I believe the most important aspect of any center, small or large, is a passionate, sincere and dedicated staff willing to listen to their veterans and do what is necessary to assist them resolve their issues.

Our veterans do not need nor want to be coddled; they want to understand what is needed to get to where they want to go, how to get through, around or over the barriers preventing them from getting there, and who they can trust for this information. ♦


Linda Frank Note From Linda Frank, president of CCME: I want to thank Mr. Marc Churchwell of the University of West Florida for developing this insightful article. See you all in February at the CCME Symposium in Orlando!