5 Strengths Military-Connected Students Bring to Your Campus

Military Students - Photo of an Eagle Flying Over Woodland

by Tanya Ang (ACE) and Bruce Kelley (University of South Dakota),
Presenters: Recorded Webcast, Supporting Military-Connected Students for Success and Completion

Each fall, as faculty, academic advisors, and others return to campus, there are fresh articles and blog posts about how to help military and veteran students. Often, these articles focus unfortunately on the “issues” that military students might bring to a campus, or the unique challenges they face. But we would like to suggest a shift in perspective: Military and veteran students are powerful assets to campus learning, campus life, and campus community. Institutions need to be thinking not only about how to provide targeted support for military students, but also about how to leverage their unique strengths.

A quick note: Before we share five specific ways in which this is the case, we’d like to define what we mean by “military-connected students.” While this term is often used to include students with a current or prior connection to the military (including dependents and spouses) for the purpose of this article, “military-connected” refers to members of the National Guard, reservists, active duty personnel, and veterans.

Here are five strengths of military-connected students that we want to discuss in this article:

  1. They are already the product of an intense educational experience.
  2. They bring diversity training and experience with diverse perspectives.
  3. They have resilience and are trained problem solvers; some have also received leadership training.
  4. They are working toward a mission and are focused on accomplishing their academic goals.
  5. They are service-oriented, volunteering more frequently than any other student demographic.

It's true that each of these strengths can also provide challenges for these students, depending on the context. But failing to recognize these qualities first as strengths means missing significant opportunities to not only integrate these students into the classroom and campus community, but to boost the quality of the college experience for all students.

1. They are already the product of an intense educational experience.

Where this is a strength:
Tanya Ang. When I am working with institutions of higher learning, a myth I sometimes need to address is the belief that military-connected students are not able to handle the academic rigor of higher learning, or that they decided to serve because they were not academic material, and thus they will not do well in school. Research such as the Million Records Project, however, indicates that military-connected students do just as well, if not better, than their peers. Besides their drive and intense focus, one of the reasons for this success is the intense training service members receive while serving.

The content, scope, and rigor of this training is often comparable to what many students receive in similar courses at an institution of higher learning -- so much so that the American Council on Education (ACE) has been evaluating these trainings and the service members' on-the-job experiences for college credit recommendations since 1954. A glance at the Military Guide Online will quickly reveal the extent of training service members receive and how it translates to equivalent post-secondary coursework.

This prior training allows military-connected students to come to the classroom with knowledge and experience their peers might not necessarily have, as well as a drive to learn.

Bruce Kelley. In addition to physical training, members of the armed forces receive training in a wide array of subjects: medicine, foreign languages, human resources, accounting and finance, logistics, leadership development, and more. It is not accidental that 83.8% of the officers in the military have a Bachelor's degree or higher. According to the U.S. Department of the Army Field Manual (2005), military training consists of a "deliberate study of technical and professional developments, focused collection and analysis of data. . . free-ranging experimentation, and transforming processes" (p. 4-10). Military-connected students are also trained to expect frequent feedback and assessment.

Where this is a challenge:
Bruce Kelley. Some students will find the incongruities between military training and higher education challenging. Both are fixed in history and tradition, but their cultures can be quite different. For example, goals in the military tend to be group-oriented and part of a much larger plan, while in higher ed, goals are individualistic, and students are often allowed and encouraged to discover their own paths toward a degree. Assessment in the military is purposeful and immediate, whereas assessment in higher education may be delayed and less connected to immediate application. Because assessment and evaluation is such an essential part of military training, military-connected students may feel that ungraded and unassessed classroom activities are a waste of time.

Also, while military-related students are trained to work as members of a cohesive team and team-based learning can build on this strength, it's critical that team-based learning activities be well-organized, with clearly defined goals and well-defined roles. Lack of clarity on these items can be especially frustrating to the military-connected student. Generally speaking (with important exceptions), the military trains with a predilection toward action, while higher education trains with a predilection for reflection. Some student veterans may need time and guidance in making the transition to a more reflective mode of thinking and communicating.

Institutions need to be intentional about how they work to help students navigate the differences between these two educational experiences.

Tanya Ang. One area I see that could be a potential challenge is that military training is specific to mission. While a civilian and a military course may cover similar content, if some of the content in the civilian course is not mission critical, it may not be covered in the military training. Similarly, the military course may not cover specific material required for a civilian-equivalent certification or license. For these reasons, military-connected students are often required to take courses for which they already know much of the material but still need exposure to some portions that were missed in their prior training. This can be frustrating for students.

If serving military students is -- for either demographic reasons or because of your mission -- deeply important to your institution, then look to other colleges that have addressed this challenge directly. Lansing Community College's Military Medic to Paramedic Program, for example, has created modules within courses to provide a way for military-connected students to take only the coursework they need to fill the gaps.

2. They bring experience with diverse perspectives.

Where this is a strength:
Tanya Ang. Many individuals who have served in the military have participated in some sort of multicultural training to help prepare for potential deployments or for being stationed in another country. A 2013 report published by ACE reveals that "student veterans/service members age 25 and older show somewhat greater cultural sensitivity than nonveteran/civilian students age 25 and over."

Many have also had the experience of being abroad and experiencing different cultures firsthand. This training and experience brings a unique perspective to the classroom and provides opportunity for rich discussion as military-connected students are able to share their experiences with classmates.

A former military-connected student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who interned for me for a year, spoke of how she was regularly called upon in class to share her experiences from having been deployed. These experiences with other cultures informed classroom dialogue and helped bring the content of the course to life. It was also common for students to seek her out after class to hear more about her experiences.

Where this is a challenge:
Bruce Kelley. The military's focus on cultural understanding is intended to improve the effectiveness of military operations. This may provide a perspective that misses important elements of culture not related to those operations. Additionally, military-connected students who have served overseas may feel as though they have a much better understanding of the intricacies of the history, politics, people and places in those regions than the faculty do. This can set up a potential area of ideological conflict between military-connected students and instructors, which only respectful communication (from both parties) can overcome. To me, this highlights the importance of educating faculty about the perspectives (and both the strengths and challenges) that some military-connected students will bring to the classroom.

Tanya Ang. I would add that military-connected students might also seek to be further challenged beyond the basic information being taught in a class focused on diversity and/or multiculturalism. However, this is a great opportunity for faculty to potentially engage with military-connected students in their classes to find creative ways to have the students integrate their experiences into the classroom. For those students willing to self-identify and share their experiences with their colleagues, it could provide an opportunity to enrich the academic experience as well as challenge those students who might find the information to be too basic for them.

3. They have mental nimbleness and resilience, and are trained problem-solvers.

Where this is a strength:
Bruce Kelley. The military stresses creativity and resilience. Army leaders, for example, are trained in "challenging inflexible ways of thinking, removing impediments to institutional innovation, and underwriting the risks associated with bold change" (U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 1, 2005, p. 4-10). Consider these relevant quotes from US Army Field Manual 6-22 (Army Leadership: Competent, confident, and agile, 2006):

  • "An Army leader's self-control, balance and stability greatly influence his ability to interact with others.  People are human beings with hopes, fears, concerns, and dreams" (p. 6-4).
  • “The ability to see something from another person’s point of view, to identify with and enter into another person’s feelings and emotions, enables the Army leader to better care for civilians, Soldiers, and their families" (p. 4-9).
  • “Leaders of character can develop only through continual study, reflection, experience, and feedback” (p. 4-12).

Tanya Ang. During their time in service, many military-connected students have indeed been faced with challenges they have had to overcome with creativity and resilience. That creativity and resiliency can greatly impact their success in higher education. As mentioned earlier, research indicates that military-connected students tend to do well in higher education even though they are faced with challenges other more traditional students do not usually have to face. Many have dependents, have financial obligations, and are working a full-time job while taking classes. According to a recent study conducted by ACE, “more than 60 percent of active duty undergraduates were identified as having four or more risk factors associated with not completing college,” yet, looking at the student outcomes cited in the Million Records Project by Student Veterans of America, these students are using their creativity and resilience to move forward with completing their academic goals.

Institutions often worry that this student population will require extra work and support that might drain resources. While this student population, much like other underserved groups, might need some extra attention when they first start navigating post-secondary education, when given the right information and direction, military-connected students are able to use the self-sufficiency, nimbleness, and resiliency they learned during their time in service to successfully address these risk factors and do exceptionally well in higher education.

Where this is a challenge
Tanya Ang. Having been taught to be self-sufficient, military-connected students sometimes are hesitant to take advantage of support services available to them or ask for help. Additionally, other students (and even faculty) might assume that due to their age, self-sufficiency, and ability for creative problem solving, these students need less help than others. During ACE’s Veterans' Success Jam in 2010, one student said, "The biggest problem that I had as an older student is that everybody thought I knew what was going on. I actually didn’t have a clue and wasted a lot of time because no on explained things as they would have as a freshman."

Those working with military-connected students need to keep this in the forefront of their mind in order to help address potential risk factors that could impede their ability to accomplish their academic goals.

4. They are working toward a mission; they are focused and driven.

Where this is a strength:
Bruce Kelley. Military-related students have been enculturated to be self-sufficient. For example, the Army’s Warrior Ethos "inspires the refusal to accept failure and . . . . generates an unfailing commitment to win. . . . The Warrior Ethos instills a “mission first--never quit” mental toughness in soldiers. . . . Soldiers combine the Warrior Ethos with initiative, decisiveness, and mental agility to succeed in the complex, often irregular environments in which they operate.  Soldiers and leaders who exemplify the Warrior Ethos accomplish the mission regardless of obstacles" (U.S. Department of the Army Field, Manual 1, 2005, pp. 4-11 to 4-12).

Military-related students can draw on their training for both discipline and work ethic. As one graduate student described it in his dissertation, "If you’re in the military and you don’t work hard, people look down on you. . . . And it’s just kind of followed me.  I want to prove myself to the professors that I’m going to do the work they assign and I am going to do it to the best of my ability. It’s all about proving yourself."

Tanya Ang. As Bruce has clearly shown, military-connected students have spent their time in service focused on mission. Their work was done in order to meet that mission and very little could get in the way. This focus translates over into academic pursuits. Research shows that student veterans/service members are less likely than their nonmilitary/civilian peers to participate in cocurricular programs on campus but are more likely than their nonmilitary peers to engage proactively with their professors about grades, course assignments, and anything pertaining to successfully completing their post-secondary education goals. This drive and focus allows them to establish objectives, determine a path toward completion, and stay focused on that mission until it is accomplished. Despite the many challenges that might need to be overcome, the military-connected student typically stays focused on the task at hand, because not completing is considered failure.

Where this is a challenge:

Bruce Kelley. In the military, the mission is focused, direct, and subordinated to a higher cause. In higher education, the mission may be more diffuse, with multiple avenues for accomplishment. In addition, the "accomplish the objective, regardless of obstacles" attitude of some military-related students can be a challenge if they interpret that as a mission that must be accomplished alone. They may not recognize or feel comfortable using the various support systems put in place to assist them, whether these are veterans' clubs or the more ubiquitous support centers like the writing center. On the one hand, observing some other students' lack of focus in the classroom can be distracting for student veterans. And on the other hand, veterans can feel "rusty" and believe they are behind their younger classmates; the transition from a position where they knew exactly what they needed to do to one where they are "relearning the ropes" can be frustrating.

Tanya Ang. It's important that educators define the value of extracurricular activities clearly, and demonstrate how cocurricular engagement can be a strategy for academic success. Engagement in campus life provides not just opportunities for the student to learn and develop as an individual, but also a level of personal connection to the institution and to peers who can serve as allies when a student encounters challenges that could impede their ability to complete their postsecondary education.

5. They are service-oriented.

Where this is a strength:
Bruce Kelley. Military and veteran students are service-oriented; they joined "the service." In fact, student veterans volunteer at a higher rate than most students. Because of this, they can excel at service-learning types of activities. They often have connections to the community, and they engender the respect from those outside of academia that may be necessary to move a project forward. Service learning often involves the accomplishment of a practical activity with reflection and assessment afterwards -- an educational environment that is perhaps closest to that of the military's own educational processes.

Where this is a challenge:
Tanya Ang. While military-connected individuals are known to have a desire to serve and participate in bettering their communities, balancing work life, home life, and school can be challenging. One way to engage the students in these types of extracurricular activities, without it impeding their work, home, and school is to incorporate community service projects into classroom requirements or to offer community service projects that engage the entire family on a weekend. It is also helpful to celebrate those successes with follow-up barbecues, potlucks, or a trip to a local pub to increase and enhance the military-connected student’s relationships with faculty and staff, each other, and other civilian/non-military peers.

Conclusion

Military-connected students are an expanding and exciting asset for colleges and universities. They transition into higher education with “a degree of maturity, experience with leadership, familiarity with diversity, and a mission-focused orientation” (American Council on Education, Accomodating Student Veterans, 2010, p. 1). Those institutions that can leverage these students' strengths and also develop common-sense solutions to the challenges they face, will find that they have improved educational opportunities for all of their students--military and civilian alike.

Photo above by Kea Mowat on Unsplash.