Our Home Is Their Home
How Community Partnerships Can Improve Military-Affiliated Student Success
In today’s economy, it can be difficult for institutions of higher learning to create new programs and services for one sector of the student population. However, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the many other campaigns that make up the Global War on Terrorism, have resulted in a surge of veteran-focused resources, services, and programs offered by government, nonprofit, and private-sector organizations. While many campuses are trying to provide more services to veterans, a great opportunity exists for collaboration between education, business, and community partners to play a larger and more strategic role in helping student veterans succeed. Keith Glindemann, president of the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators, says, “There are more resources available for our student veterans now than ever before; the challenge is connecting them.”
Community Support Needed
A large sector of the military population feels out-of-place as a student on a college campus or as an employee in the civilian workforce. Many are searching for the camaraderie that came so naturally in uniform, or they may miss the order and discipline of military life and wonder if they will be able to adjust. Support services and programs exist to help servicemembers make their transition, but the majority of those individuals or agencies are either on the military installation, or they exist in the community. While in uniform, servicemembers are required to participate in transition briefs and take steps to make the shift out of the military. Once a servicemember takes the uniform off, they have to navigate through a sea of veteran support organizations to find the resources they need. There is not a comprehensive organization that exists to ensure every veteran is fully and holistically supported. Full support will only be achieved through the collaborative efforts of organizations and individuals both on and off campus.
Although there is constant communication between military, political, healthcare, education, and business leaders, very little interaction takes place among all the interested parties at one time. A community that understands the transition process and its impact on the military-affiliated population will be in a better position to support the shift from military to civilian life. A more successful transition leads to higher enrollment of qualified, fully-funded students on college campuses and an increase in skilled workers entering the workforce. The economic impact of successfully bridging the gap between military to civilian life is immeasurable, as the return on the investment made to support the transition will continue for many years after life in uniform.
The original GI Bill, which Congress approved in 1944, helped get those who fought in World War II back into the workforce. Its return on investment for the American taxpayer was $6.90 for every $1 invested. Early reports show the Post-9/11 GI Bill could yield as high as $8 to every $1 invested due to increased economic growth and higher tax brackets for educated veterans.
We have learned from current and prior military conflicts the dreadful consequences of the failed reintegration of veterans and their family members, making the need for successful support programs and services a top priority. The most important thing to keep in mind when developing a successful transition program is that the initiative has to look for ways to meet the needs of veterans in the academic, professional, and social arenas by actively engaging students from the time they make an inquiry about the institution until they have successfully transitioned into the civilian workforce. Student engagement can be achieved and enhanced through communication, senior leader commitment, faculty and staff support, programs and services, campus culture, classroom environment, and community engagement.
Military-affiliated students are non-traditional adult learners who have unique service needs to help them achieve academic success. The more outreach, support, and information services educational institutions can bring to these students, the more time they will have to commit to making a successful transition from military to university and civilian life.
Schools in Action
The vast majority of educational institutions have realized the importance of having military-affiliated student resource centers and organizing student organizations on campus like a Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter. Camaraderie, peer support, and shared interests motivate students to join groups like SVA, which have proven to be a key factor in their success. However, most student veteran groups will engage departmental offices on campus, and government and veterans service organizations (VSOs) in the community, but once the ceremony, parade, or BBQ is over, they often do not maintain the relationships, which eliminates the benefit of having ongoing support. Stakeholders have to realize the importance of building collaborative relationships between institutions of higher learning, student veterans organizations, and VSOs. One of the key takeaways, especially for student veterans, is understanding the value of building relationships that go beyond one-time projects or events.
One example of a successful partnership between student veterans and a community-based veterans service organization is "1 Student Veteran,” a program created by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Student Veterans of America. The initiative provides direct assistance to student veterans who have questions, or are encountering problems accessing their VA benefits. The VFW has direct access to the VA Offices responsible for education claims adjudication, meaning veterans whose benefits have been denied or paid in error will not have to wait to file a formal appeal.
Armstrong State University in Savannah, Ga. partnered with VFW Post 4392 as part of the 1 Student Veteran program and has seen the relationship extend past the campus grounds and into the community. On any given day, WWII, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Bosnia and OIF/OEF veterans can be found working together on and off campus. It's amazing to witness the bridge between the generational gaps develop. The partnership has grown from one veterans service organization providing disability claims assistance, to a number of veteran service organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies providing workshops on local, state, and federal benefits for veterans, referrals, mentoring, group and individual counseling, legal aid, and chaplain services. The partnership between the institution and the community has significantly improved the transition process from military to university and civilian life.
In 2014, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs highlighted the importance of collaboration among the VA, the nation’s veterans, and community partners, such as colleges and universities, in order to best serve veterans' needs. The Department of Veterans Affairs also created a website devoted to “National Campaigns and Partnerships” signifying the importance of partnerships across multiple organizations to serve veterans. Institutions of higher learning across the nation have the opportunity to develop initiatives that support and facilitate the successful transition of veterans into academic, professional and social communities. Members of college and universities need to extend their expertise in building community partnerships to develop a service network where community partners, educational institutions, businesses, nonprofits and others work collectively to build a strong support system that will have a meaningful impact on veterans returning to school and work. Interaction between these organizations can also prevent the duplication of efforts and keep all parties informed of the work being done both in the community as well as at the college or university.
Returning to civilian life presents new opportunities—and challenges—for veterans. Whether they served during a war or in peacetime, veterans experiences—both positive and negative—have made them different people than they were before putting on the uniform. Military service defines veterans and their family members, whether they like it or not. With less than 1 percent of the population serving, our veterans and servicemembers are part of a small minority who have shouldered an incredible responsibility. The reintegration of veterans into the civilian, academic, and professional arenas is a local community function that requires a collective effort to provide a meaningful role in the community for those who have served. After all, our home is their home.
Phil Gore is the director of Military Education Outreach and Success at Armstrong State University. He also serves as legislative director for the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators.