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Faculty and Student Veterans: Achieving Academic Goals Together

Career Tools  |  by Robert Ackerman, Ph.D.
Monday, December 17, 2012
The end of World War I saw the beginnings of the Great Depression when discharged servicemen were unable to find employment. In 1932 and again in 1933 those unemployed former servicemen marched on Washington, D.C., demanding payment of the bonuses promised to them. Those marches ended when active duty military units forced the Bonus Marchers from their encampments.

As World War II was drawing to a close and in an effort to avoid the embarrassment of anything like another Bonus March, leaders in Congress proposed what became the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill. That legislation provided veterans with programs and benefits that would help to ease the nation's economy as it moved from making bombs to making refrigerators. A significant part of the bill provided educational opportunities for veterans, changing higher education as veterans came to the campuses in huge numbers seeking a better life.

If the nation was unprepared to provide for the transitional needs of the WWI veterans, it was equally unprepared to assist returning veterans from the Vietnam War. Unlike the first or second World Wars, the Vietnam War was not popularly supported. Protests against the war were common, many of which took place on college campuses. If soldiers from WWI were mistreated upon their return home, so were Vietnam veterans. Their service was not honored and they were frequently criticized for having served. The Vietnam archives at Texas Tech University 1 tell the painful story of the kind of America, including college campuses, to which those veterans returned.

So what is it that is being done on college campuses and particularly by faculty to honor the service of current military personnel? During all of the Vietnam War only three journal articles were published that discussed how veterans of the war were transitioning as college students and those articles were institutional specific. Researchers have focused on today's veteran as a student, producing a cottage industry of information in both book and article forms. A Google search of "veterans as students" will yield detailed material helpful to any person who is interested in serving student veterans.

What do those materials tell us about student veterans that could be helpful to classroom faculty? An early 2008 study 2 of the transitions combat veterans make when they become college students led to the publication of a book 3 that looked at what campuses could do to accommodate veterans. That work, in turn, led to the recent publication of a handbook titled "Called to serve" 4, which is reviewed elsewhere here. Each of those works provided information for faculty who seek to help student veterans achieve their academic goals.

A failing of higher education during the Vietnam era was that classroom faculty who opposed that conflict often targeted returning veterans, making it difficult for those students to be successful. Some of that negative behavior continues today; situations in which classroom faculty are openly critical of those who served in the military. For a faculty member to refer to soldiers as terrorists likely says more about the faculty member than the student veterans in class 3. While those incidents are, hopefully, not common occurrences, each one makes it difficult for veterans to feel accepted as part of academic communities.

As a nation we ask our military personnel to perform dangerous and difficult tasks. Many who accept those challenges do so to earn educational benefits so they can better their lives and participate fully in the American Dream. If the campus does not provide a welcoming environment for military personnel or if faculty are openly critical of those who serve, where is the reward for their service?

Many campuses now have student veterans organizations, the members of which could help faculty and the institution understand the adjustment student veterans face on each campus. A significant contribution of the "Called to serve" handbook 4 is the discussion it provides on how faculty can help student veterans achieve their academic goals. Those suggestions go beyond avoiding negative comments to include advising student veterans, meeting the needs of adult learners, fostering student veteran success, understanding deployment challenges, and connecting with student veterans. While it is true that few faculty have had experiences similar to those of the student veterans, there is emerging research such as that reported in "Called to serve" that provides insight into how we can meet the challenges that this student population brings to campuses.