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To help student vets, college staff take a new course – in 'military competency'

Texas A & M University, San Antonio, recently became the first college in the US to require all faculty and staff to take the training, which gives them insights into addressing challenges faced by veterans as well as other non-traditional students.

Michael Modecki/Courtesy of TWU
TWU student veteran Kristen Hurst plants flags in the university’s free speech area in honor of veterans.

With about 20 percent of its students connected to the military, Texas A & M University, San Antonio, recently took an extraordinary step: It became the first college in the United States to require all faculty and staff to take “military competency” training. As part of its mission to be "military embracing," it wanted everyone to better understand the experiences of veterans and military families, and help them transition to academic life. 

A growing number of schools are offering similar training on a voluntary basis, even though they have a much smaller percentage of students with a military background. Student vets can figure out who's had the training by looking for the symbols professors put up on their office doors or classroom walls.

The training opens professors’ eyes to the considerable strengths these students can draw upon, and contradicts the stereotypes veterans sometimes encounter on campus – that they are likely to have mental-health or academic challenges, for instance. And as they smooth the path for soldiers reintegrating into civilian life, these campuses offer lessons for a much broader mission: better retention and graduation rates among "non-traditional" students, a group growing so fast it may soon shed that moniker.

“Student veterans are among the most successful students in higher education,” says Jared Lyon, president and CEO of Student Veterans of America (SVA), which has chapters on about 1,400 campuses. “Yes, there’s value in [having faculty] understand military culture, but when you take your uniform off, your issues are no different" than other older students who are often juggling jobs and families, he says.

Nationwide, student vets who enrolled in college between 2009 and 2013 showed a 72 percent success rate – with 54 percent having graduated by 2015 and another 18 percent still enrolled, according to a new report from the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST) research project. Following about 850,000 student records of veterans using post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, the effort is a partnership between SVA, the National Student Clearinghouse, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Student vets “have learned to work hard for a common purpose. They have a great number of skill sets …. Our job is to help them leverage those skill sets … and rediscover or create a new mission,” says K.C. Kalmbach, a psychology professor who led the creation of the training at Texas A & M, San Antonio.

But because less than 0.5 percent of Americans are actively serving in the military now, it’s hard for a campus to really be welcoming to student vets without offering some specific training to bridge cultural divides, she and others say. 

The shifts taking place in the wake of such training are varied: 

  • A professor at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) noticed that a strong student wasn’t performing well on regularly scheduled exams. Talking with the student veteran, he discovered that the exams were always at the same time that a garbage truck was unloading a large dumpster just outside – a distraction to someone used to being vigilant about noise. He changed the timing for future exams.
  • A professor at Texas A & M, San Antonio thought she was being kind if she shifted due dates or test dates on her syllabus when a majority of students wanted more time. But when she learned that such actions can cause stress for student vets – who tend to interpret those dates as fixed and arrange work or babysitters around them – she started setting only the most important dates and then following through.
  • Other professors at TWU, a coeducational school, discovered the full range of resources on campus and in the community that they can offer to student veterans. Having learned about a study showing that female student vets aren’t any more likely than male vets to seek out help, and may be less likely to publicly reveal their veteran status, they started listening for clues that would give them the opportunity to reach out.

One of the key differences faculty learn about is that military culture is more about hierarchy and strong, consistent rules, while higher education is more individualistic and encourages free-flowing debate.

It’s about asking, “How do we encourage students who see debating as foreign or disrespectful” to participate in class, Ms. Kalmbach says. On the flip side, it’s also about managing classroom conversations to limit stereotyping about the military by students with no knowledge of it.

“The training helped me know the range of veterans’ experiences … and think about the fact that everybody’s different, so just be ready for it and … be available for them,” says Katherine Landdeck, who teaches about history and war at TWU, where she and 150 other faculty and staff have completed “Vet Zone” training. About 2 percent of TWU students are veterans or active-duty military, and about 10 percent of the student body is male.

When teaching about war, “you want to ask them, ‘What are the guns like? What’s it sound like? What’s it feel like?’ and you can’t,” Professor Landdeck says. “But once they know they’ve got the support of you and the class, they share that. I had one veteran, in particular, that was very open about his experiences, and it gave weight to the whole class and made everyone pause and realize real people had these experiences, and real people are still having these experiences. It was powerful.”

Sean Sala, an Iraq war veteran who served three combat tours during his time in the Navy, says he has seen the Vet Zone placards all over the TWU campus. “Each time I see someone try to make the effort to understand where we’re coming from, it makes me feel really good. It makes me feel very appreciated because I went through some tough stuff on these deployments,” he says.

Courtesy photo
Commanding officer Captain Bolt presents Navy & Marine Corps Achievement medal to Sean Sala, an Iraq war veteran who served three combat tours during his time in the Navy and is now a student at Texas Woman's University.

Before coming to TWU, he says, post-traumatic stress “almost ruined” his life, but the VA helped him overcome it. While he’s encountered some “cold responses” in other settings, he says that at TWU he’s never been hesitant to speak openly about veterans and mental health.

TWU’s training covers female vets specifically. The school has the largest portion of female student vets (relative to overall campus size) of any campus in Texas, says Amy O’Keefe, executive director of its Campus Alliance for Resource Education.

She tells about a female student vet who experienced extreme stress when trying to get across the campus, for example, because she was stuck behind a group filling up the sidewalk. When asked why she didn’t just go around, the student said that because of her experiences in a combat area, stepping off a sidewalk into the grass seemed too dangerous.

At Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system, some faculty used to be surprised to learn there were any student vets on campus (they are currently about 0.5 percent of the student body). Since 2015, about 50 faculty and staff have taken “VET NET Ally” training, and one hope is to reduce the misunderstandings and biases that student vets sometimes encounter, says Zachary Dubord, assistant director of transfer and veteran services.

A Marine, for instance, told Mr. Dubord about a professor handing back exams in class and saying, “If you didn’t get an A on this, you should go join the Marines.” The student was at the top of his class and didn’t know how to communicate how upset that had made him.

Now, Dubord says, “I’m hearing that the atmosphere is much more welcoming than it used to be.” The number of student vets meeting together at Binghamton has grown from about three to more than 20, and they recently created an SVA chapter.

The demand is growing for narrowing the military-civilian divide. The SVA is helping PsychArmor Institute, a nonprofit in California, to create higher-ed military competency training available free online. And the United Way near TWU has asked Ms. O’Keefe to adapt the training for people in the community all over north Texas.

“There’s this real sense that we who did not serve have an obligation to help with the transition and success of those who did,” O’Keefe says.

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