Serving Those Who Served
Jeffrey Mayo, The University of Texas at Austin
Catherine Hartman, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina
Research has indicated gaps in understanding how student veterans undergo transfer and acclimate academically and socially at their receiving institutions. Through this qualitative case study, we invite you to explore student veterans’ academic and social experiences post transfer, notably how these students develop a sense of belonging on their new campuses. Findings will be useful for practitioners interested in supporting student veterans throughout the transfer process.
In the last decade, over one million veterans enrolled in postsecondary programs in the U.S. (DeRamio, 2017), with 84% choosing to start at community colleges. During their transitions into higher education, veterans may encounter multiple hurdles and barriers associated to academic and social acclimation. For example, research has found that student veterans may encounter instances of isolation and feelings of low sense of belonging on campus (Durdella, 2012; Hammond, 2016). Various experiences may contribute to such feelings, including adjusting to a civilian lifestyle, managing economic changes resulting from leaving their careers, and navigating interpersonal relationships on campus (Sayer, Carlson, & Frazier, 2014). Veterans may also undergo identity changes as they shift from being in the armed services to higher education (Jones, 2017). Further, student veterans may face mental health disorders associated with their work in the military, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Elliott, Gonzalez, & Larsen, 2011).
Socially, veterans may also struggle to engage and find support on campus. A potentially strong factor associated with veterans’ success is their perception of inclusion on campus. Research has indicated that veterans may experience a reported lower sense of belonging, or perceived connectedness to the institution, than their peers, particularly in classroom settings (Durdella, 2012; Hammond, 2016). However, student veterans may be reluctant to seek support services due to norms established in the military (such as having to demonstrate strength, self-reliance, and/or stoicism). In turn, students may also be concerned about instances of stigma they could encounter if they seek help.
On campuses, institutional agents and support staff may struggle with aiding veterans with navigating higher education. Students may encounter inconsistent and poor advising and faculty/staff interactions, and many staff report knowing little about student veterans or how to support them (Cook & Kim, 2009; DiRamio, Ackerman, & Mitchell, 2008; Radford, 2009); this may indicates a lack of institutional attention to veteran support and staff development. If students are unable to establish a reliable and helpful network of staff and faculty, they may turn to their peers for support. Yet, veterans may not be successful with making connections on campus due to many of the previously mentioned barriers and perceived differences between themselves and other students (Vacchi & Berger, 2014). Being a veteran often remains a core part of students’ identity throughout their educational experience and may be prominent in their orientation and goals. Students’ affiliation with being a veteran is also related to the connections they make on campus (Hammond, 2016), indicating that veterans may specifically seek support from other veteran peers and veteran support offices on campuses.
In the face of these multiple barriers to their academic success, often remain strongly committed to education and completing a degree (Rumann & Hamrick, 2010). Many veterans earn college credits while still enlisted. Veterans bring such dedication and a variety of strengths with them to campus. To further explore and support veteran students’ experiences and sense of belonging on campuses, we asked the following research questions:
What are the academic and social experiences of veteran students during the transfer process?
How do veteran transfers develop a sense of belonging on their new campuses?
We selected two selective four-year institutions in Texas for this study: Northern University, a private institution, and Southern University, a public institution (pseudonyms used for both). We conducted one-time, semi-structured interviews with nine veteran transfer students from both schools. To guide our inquiry, we used the learning mindset framework (Broda et al., 2018; Walton & Cohen, 2007 & 2011). Sense of belonging is associated with students’ perceived connectedness to their school, which, in turn, is related to their involvement on campus and their commitment to their institution (Strayhorn, 2008). Research indicates that a stronger sense of belonging at the beginning of college correlates to higher GPA, persistence, and credits earned (Hulleman & Wormington, 2018). Also, as discussed previously, research has found that sense of belonging can affect students’ social interactions and engagement. We used the sense of belonging framework to understand the role of sense of belonging in veteran students’ transitions.
Focus on the Degree, Strong Academic Connections
Like prior research, we found that student veterans are highly motivated to complete their degrees. The majority of veterans in our study devoted much of their energy into academics rather than on-campus social activities. For instance, Lane, a second-year student at Southern, viewed college as a full-time job:
That's how I see things…the Navy's paying for me to go to school, so this is my job to go to school. So then I get here in the mornings, stay typically 'til like four or five or whatever, and then go home…But, yeah, typically, to me, this is my job--to get my degree.
As for connections with their peers, veterans perceived differences between themselves and more traditional students on campus that created barriers to social belonging. Uma, a Northern student, shared that the difference between veterans and non-veterans was obvious: “one more goal oriented…just here to get my degree and move on…the other one is kind of like, ‘oh I’m in college, that’s awesome.’”
With fewer peer connections, veterans made strong academic and person connections with faculty members. In particular, Northern students identified their faculty advisors as welcoming and supportive beginning early in their transition to campus. These connections first forged during orientation and strengthened throughout regular check-ins throughout the year. Uma noted that multiple points of contact through courses, advising, and research impressed upon her that faculty were available to her at all times. Andrew, a parent in addition to being a veteran, felt that his professors better understood his life and off-campus commitments than did most of his peers:
Being a dad that's one of the nice things about my professors, most of them can relate to where I am at so if I have to send an email about missing class due to a sick kid or having to go to a parent teacher meeting or something they are all very understanding about that.
Unique Identities Impact Experience
Though they recognized that their post-secondary path was different as transfer students, student veterans did not associate closely with the label, or identity, “transfer students.” Students more closely identified with other groups or affiliations, such as being a veteran, older than their peers, and/or a parent. Most participants viewed these neotraditional identities as barriers to connecting with traditional peers on campus. Matt, a student at Northern and a parent, found that the disconnect stemmed from being in different life stages:
It feels like a huge disconnect between the 18-year olds and my 27-year old self. We just don't have the same interests, and once you get to the 21-year olds, I'm not looking to get drunk every weekend anymore, I did that when I was 21, I did that plenty when in the military…I'm just not looking for that kind of social life. I'm looking for older people, I don't see very many people my age at [Northern]. There's people that are way older or way younger than me…I just don't care anymore. I view it more so as I'm here to learn.
Student veterans shared that this isolation most often plays out in the classroom. Ophelia, a Northern student, found when given a chance to work with students on group assignments that she could connect with students. However, in most of her courses, she sees “that whole row of people that know each other and I'm like the only person in that row that's like, ‘I think I'm getting in the way of their little group.’” Ophelia indicated that she would self-isolate to avoid groups of students who already knew one another, creating additional barriers to developing a sense of belonging to campus.
Despite the difficulty or reluctance to bond with traditional peers, participants wanted and sought out mentorship from peers. Hector from Northern University hoped to be assigned a peer mentor, similar to his sponsor in the Marines, so when he needs “help on campus you at least have a friend now.” Student veterans formed their strongest ties with other veterans, older students, and their instructors. In lieu of a formal mentorship program for veteran, transfer, or neotraditional students at Northern, Andrew found his own peer support:
We started talking because he was a Navy vet. Then one of my classmates was a transfer student from [the local community college] also so we have gotten to know each other. I have two other guys, John and Gabe, in one of my other classes who are also [nontraditional] students. So it’s nice having other students that are around my age that are going through the same things in life to talk to.
Andrew found it easier to relate to peers with common life experiences prior to their time at Northern.
Veterans Feel Institutional Pride
Although the student veterans in our study expressed that their predominant focus was on earning a degree, they often expressed a sense of institutional pride that was not purely based on academics. When asked about their connection with their campus community, students at both Southern and Northern remarked on their university’s reputation as academically “challenging” or “a great school.” Many veterans also made associations between campus pride to a similar communal sense of pride in the service. Hector, who followed his former commanding officer to Northern, described this feeling as, “we both had that camaraderie, that family feeling. When you go to a football game, you're not a stranger. You know, if you're wearing [Northern colors], if it's blackout game, as long you have your [Northern mascot] you’re welcomed.” Being part of something bigger and outside themselves was important to the student veterans in our study.
Based on these findings, we recommend the following guidance for practitioners working with student veterans:
Meet student veterans where they're at:
Trying to fit student veterans into the mold of a traditional college student may be unproductive and may not acknowledge differences in their life experiences and goals while in school. Instead, acknowledge and foster the ways that they engage with the university community.
Their involvement may reflect their prioritization of academics or strong sense of institutional pride rather than social connections or personal development.
To include veterans with families, identify ways to include partners and children in events. For instance, have family-friendly components of established events or host events exclusively for families, such as a family graduation ceremony at commencement. The Ram Kidz Village program at Colorado State University provide educational activities for students’ children on the library premises, allowing student parents to study, or just take a break with Netflix, for up to two hours, six days a week.
Lean into the value that veterans place on mentorship and institutional pride:
As service members, veterans respected formal mentorship and the institutions that they served.
A mentorship program need not be exclusive for veterans. At The University of Texas at Austin, we have created nontraditional student learning communities to connect students on a less-than-traditional path to their degrees, including veterans, older students, and parents. Veterans respect the mentor-mentee relationship and appreciate the familiarity of having an older peer providing guidance.
As an attendee at our 2020 NISTS conference session suggested, veterans may feel strong connections to an institutions’ colors and insignia based on their proud military service. Incorporate these distinguishing institutional symbols to build an even stronger sense of belonging to campus among your veterans. Everyone loves school spirit!
Student veterans are an important and significant student population at colleges and universities around the country. Understanding their priorities, on- and off-campus commitments, and values can help your institution serve those who have served as they earn their degrees and pursue new professional and personal goals.
About the Authors
Dr. Jeffrey Mayo is the Assistant Director of the First-Year Experience Office at The University of Texas at Austin. In this role, he develops programs to support transfer students during their academic transition to campus. Informed and motivated by his own transfer experience, he aims to reduce friction in the transfer process and highlight the value these students add to their new institutions. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Catherine Hartman is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina. Her research and work seek to support community college and transfer student transitions and success. (email@example.com)