Understanding Veteran Students – Part I

Roger Thompson

As writing instructors, we see a much wider swath of the student population than other faculty.  And, as writing instructors, we are likely confronted with personal histories in ways that faculty in other disciplines encounter.  Those ideas were at the heart of much of the research Alexis Hart (faculty at Allegheny College and a Navy veteran) and I have conducted in recent years.  I wanted to share some of our findings as a way to encourage our intellectual engagement with the diverse student population here.  That type of engagement often leads to concrete changes in how we do our work and, often, compelling dialogue in the classroom.  If you are interested in more detailed analysis and description of our work, please visit our CCCC White Paper site.

Some Assumptions that Underpin Our Research

1. Writing classes are different than many classes and because of standard practices like small classes, peer review, conferencing, and personal writing, likely have higher probability of disclosure of veteran status.
2. The veteran demographic continues to grow.  The trajectory has been increasing for a variety of reasons.  As of the beginning of 2013, more than a million student veterans were taking benefits.  Cumulative numbers are much higher.  Despite widespread reporting on predatory recruiting practices by the military, most service members continue to come from middle-class, white family backgrounds.
3. The effects of our culture at war will continue to linger in the popular consciousness, and the surge in enrollments of student veterans will give way to a surge in enrollments in family members of student veterans.  Indeed, the head of SBU’s student veteran association is a family member of a vet.  This demographic is largely ignored, but equally important.
4. Combat veterans make up less than 3% of the student population of veterans.
Key Findings
  • Two-year and online colleges and universities appear to be providing most of the first-year writing courses for veterans.  This fact likely is a result of several factors, including the desire of student veterans to more inexpensively and quickly fulfill general education requirements at two-year institutions, the ease with which general education requirements transfer to four-year degree-granting institutions, the ability to take certain courses while still in the military, and the flexibility of scheduling that two-year and online colleges provide to veterans, who often return to school while also having families or work obligations that limit their capacity to enroll full-time in classes at traditional four-year institutions.
  • Despite the fact that most veterans seem to be taking first year writing courses at two-year and online colleges, those institutions have fewer resources to provide training to faculty or to offer resources such as disability services, psychological counseling, or informal lounges/gathering spaces for their student veteran populations.
  • A limited number of veteran students seem to be enrolled in upper-level writing courses within departments of English or departments of Writing or Rhetoric at four-year institutions.  This may be due to the anecdotally more popular majors pursued by veterans (including social work, law enforcement, politics, international relations, business, and engineering).
  • Writing centers do not track veteran students who use their services, though several writing centers staff we interviewed indicated they were aware of veterans using their services.  We recommend that Writing Center Directors consider hiring veteran students as peer consultants to work in the Veterans Centers on their campuses (if available) or sending other peer consultants to the space(s) in which veterans already gather and are comfortable.
  • In general, while many writing faculty have some awareness of the presence of veteran students in their classes or on their campuses, they have not received any formal training on veteran students, military culture, or military writing conventions (less than 5% had received training).  On many campuses we visited, WPAs and other writing faculty were either unaware of the presence of Veterans Centers on their campuses and/or had not made any contact with the directors of those offices.   At those schools where veterans and military families are being actively recruited, and at those institutions who are in particularly close proximity to high populations of veterans and military service members, we recommend that WPAs make a conscientious effort to contact the directors of these centers (if available) in order to coordinate training and to sponsor events that signal awareness of the military population on a campus, such as film screenings, readings, and celebrations of writing.
  • Most writing faculty who have taught veteran students tend characterize them as mature, serious students who seek frank, direct guidance as they develop as writers.  They report that the veterans often serve as role models or develop leadership roles in class and that they tend to be “mission-oriented” and timely in their approach to completion of assignments.  Many professors also remarked on the value of the varied cultural experiences and broader worldviews that veterans tend to bring to class discussions and writing assignments.  Veteran students often welcome the opportunity to write about topics related to the military and veterans such as VA benefits, job placement, homelessness, etc.  We recommend that faculty facilitate the opportunity for veteran students to research and write about such topics, even while faculty conduct classes and craft assignments that allow veterans to maintain their privacy about their history of military service.
  • Because not all student veterans self-identify to faculty, faculty may be unaware of the veteran students in their classes and therefore may unwittingly be inattentive to those students’ needs, as these “invisible” veterans may be reluctant to seek additional help and/or may have some difficulty relating to classmates.  This is especially true of military servicemembers’ families, many of whom may choose not to disclose their status as a child or spouse of a veteran.  In those institutions with high veteran and military presence, we recommend that faculty consider including statements directed toward veteran students and their families on their syllabi as a way to communicate the classroom as a safe place.  Here is a sample statement from a colleague at Georgia Southern University: “I recognize the complexities of being a student veteran or being a dependent of a student veteran. If you are a student veteran, please inform me if you are in need of special accommodations. Drill schedules, calls to active duty, complications with GI Bill disbursement, and other unforeseen military and veteran-related developments can complicate your academic life. If you make me aware of a complication, I will do everything I can to assist you or put you in contact with university staff who are trained to assist you.”
  • Consideration of gender, race, or sexuality remain on the periphery of discussion of veterans on campuses.  While there were some notable exceptions, these topics were largely invisible.  We note that our interviews were not targeted toward discerning information about these topics, and we note that if any particular difficulties around them were present on a campus that they would likely not have been disclosed to outside interviewers.   Nonetheless, our site visits suggest that discussion of these topics were not vital to any training or any orientation for student veterans, and they were largely nonexistent in any training for faculty or staff.

A note on TBI and PTSD: Many of the symptoms of these injuries manifest ways that are hard to distinguish from other issues.  Symptoms such  as slow cognitive processing, difficulty organizing time, difficulty accessing resources, difficulty controlling emotions, and difficulty enacting solutions can be hard to identify, even for the sufferer.   Many times, these are virtually invisible disabilities, but they are in fact disabilities.  Our job is to recognize that they are, in fact, real injuries—as real as a missing limb—and to afford accommodations as needed.

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This entry was posted in Miscellaneous, Supporting Students, Writing & Rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Understanding Veteran Students – Part I

  1. mem13 says:

    Reblogged this on mem13 and commented:
    Roger Thompson’s informative part I of an exploration of the intersection of experiences between military veterans in college and writing faculty/classrooms. Among his many insightful points: “Many of the symptoms of these injuries manifest ways that are hard to distinguish from other issues. Symptoms such as slow cognitive processing, difficulty organizing time, difficulty accessing resources, difficulty controlling emotions, and difficulty enacting solutions can be hard to identify, even for the sufferer. Many times, these are virtually invisible disabilities, but they are in fact disabilities. Our job is to recognize that they are, in fact, real injuries—as real as a missing limb—and to afford accommodations as needed.”

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