The New York Times this week ran a thoughtful feature following one military veteran's transition from the battlefield to campus life. This and other recent articles on veteran students reveal that:
- Although there is a tendency to focus on worst-case scenarios (such as PTSD) veterans are already resourceful at developing their own coping strategies
- The single most critical thing a campus can do to support veteran students in achieving academic success is to provide them with a safe space and a supportive community
Don Pfeffer, director of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Higher Education Veterans Programs, and Jayne Lokken, a professor and counselor at St. Cloud State University, offer tactics for setting up your veterans center so as to maximize its effectiveness in helping veterans achieve success.
Provide the Right Space
"There needs to be a space on campus that veterans can call their own, where there are people who can talk their language and share similar experiences, and particularly where it is safe for veterans to vent their frustrations."
Don Pfeffer, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
Pfeffer suggests that if veteran students who are new to campus have a ready opportunity to vent around other veterans who may have already worked through the situation they are facing, this can resolve many issues that could potentially become more explosive. "This is a group-focused, self-regulated process. This is the best kind of therapy, conversations among peers." Lokken adds, "This should be a relaxing place, where they don't have to argue about war and politics."
Pfeffer offers these guidelines for providing veterans not just with a space but with the right space:
- Keep it accessible
- Make sure the space is large enough
- Provide opportunities for recreation, conversation, and shared learning
- Provide food
- Work to secure a small pool of operating money for special events
The space must be on campus and students need to be able to drop by during lunch or during a break between classes. "Make sure they can walk there. That's Step One."
Make sure the size of the space is commensurate with the size of your veterans population. Pfeffer advises that if you have 100 veterans attending classes on campus, you will need space in your center for at least 12-15 people.
Lokken suggests providing a foosball or ping pong table. Include recreational nooks in the veterans center. "This provides opportunities for veterans to get to know each other." Lokken also recommends ensuring that the center is open to non-veterans. The transition into campus life will be eased if your veteran and traditional students are chatting and comparing notes over a ping pong match.
Pfeffer advises that food is one veterans' need that may not be obvious but is still pressing, especially with delays in receiving benefits. "A lot of veterans right now don't have a lot of money to spend on food," he advises. Supplying your veterans center with a freezer and having a plan for bringing meals into the veterans center will not only attract veterans to use the space but will also help them worry less about meals and free them to focus more on their studies. Pfeffer recommends funding the meals through cash donations from local charities or churches, or through national programs such as Fare for All, which delivers low-cost food packages.
"We generally try to operate a veterans center at no cost to the veterans using it."
Don Pfeffer, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
Provide the Right Services
Beyond providing the space, provide one point person to connect veterans with different support and academic services efficiently. "Veterans are used to a clear chain of command," Lokken comments. "Follow these steps, and this will happen. They like structure, they like clear direction."
"Have one person who can respond to most of their questions or route them directly. If I am not the last person they talk to, I want to be the second to last, so I know and can let them know they will get their needs met."
Jayne Lokken, St. Cloud State U
With continuing delays in the distribution of the Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits, many veterans are still having difficulty with tuition and housing payments. It will be important that your institution be proactive in ensuring that veterans get timely and accurate financial aid information. Ensure that you have a trained staff member who understands the different chapters of benefits and can walk your students through the necessary paperwork, and ensure that you have a speedy way to get updates out to those who need them. You can staff your veterans center with work study students after a little training, but make sure you have that one point person.
Pfeffer also advises that you:
- Cultivate a strong partnership between counselors and the veterans' center staff
- Offer training for counselors, for example a virtual orientation on mental health issues for veterans, or a brief workshop on working with military families
Lokken suggests encouraging a counselor to spend a few hours a week at the veterans center. "This lets them and the students get to know each other." Lokken notes that there is a perception in the military that counseling may have a negative impact on career aspirations, and that if your institution has made a commitment to serving veteran students, it will be important for counselors to reach out to students pro-actively.