A campus setting can provide a welcoming and essential home for United States military veterans who are making the transition to becoming part of a college or university’s student body.
Although many higher education institutions do their part in providing significant assistance, others may not be offering the necessary support to them in vital areas, especially Veterans Resource Centers.
Victor Inzunza, a Marine Corps veteran and policy analyst at the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares, says administrators nationwide must take a deep look at how well they are serving those men and women because, “it’s worth the fight” and “it’s the right thing to do.”
During the recent webinar “Combat to Community: Meeting the Needs of Student Veterans on Your Campus,” Inzunza highlighted a number of strategies institutions can and should be implementing to provide assistance. He stressed that colleges must do more beyond cursory introductions and promises, highlighting one VRC on a campus that had no funding at all to serve veterans.
“For administrators, I don’t think they understand the severity of neglecting an at-risk population,” Inzunza said. “You look at some of the statistics that we’re faced with my community, my friends there are situations where veterans do commit suicide in school. That’s a really hard thing to have to say.
“Anytime I’ve gone in front of someone who is in campus leadership, I have made it pretty clear that this is a community that you cannot ignore. If you do, you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions of that. Our role as advocates and educators is not to simply flaunt our titles and wait for accolades. That’s not the work that we do. What it’s about is finding ways to make our campuses and communities better.”
Getting to know veterans on campus
Swords to Plowshares is a San Francisco-based organization that provides assistance to some 3,000-plus veterans who are nearly homeless, low income and at risk. It advocates for fair shares of resources and leads discussions on the plight of veterans at the local, state and national level, including working with higher education officials on solutions that can provide the best outcomes.
In 2019, its Institute for Veteran Policy conducted a case study of five Northern California colleges and universities that revealed a number of significant findings, concluding that while outreach focuses on veterans to attend college, many are not aware of resources that can assist them.
During Thursday’s webinar, Inzunza noted that many veterans who are transitioning from active duty to civilian life suffer from physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or depression. Of those who have been deployed, especially the more than 2 million who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, some have cognitive impairment. They are also extraordinarily proud, intelligent and talented in so many ways.
Inzunza emphasized the importance of higher education institutions and their faculty members to first identify and be able to relate to those groups who are arriving on campus while building rapport and connecting them to resources. According to his group’s study, 86 percent of the faculty surveyed say they had not received training on veteran and military culture.
“One of the things to consider is that veterans fall into a category of nontraditional students,” he says. “They’re not the 18-to-24 crowd that colleges tend to expect. If they’re going to four-year college, they likely went to community college and transferred. Their parents may not have gone to college. They are more likely to be married or have dependents. They could have had a very difficult life, faced a lot of challenges and trauma. Try your best to get acquainted with them.”
Understanding what veterans need
One of the most critical areas of needs for student veterans, according to Inzunza, is housing stability.
“I urge universities, if they can, to really plan for that,” Inzunza says. ”There’s got to be some sort of safety network for these folks. We’ve done research for about four years, and we found that many veterans were basically living in poverty. Their GI Bill wasn’t covering a lot of things that they needed to cover, basic necessities like housing and food sources. Most people assume that the GI Bill is paying for all for everything and that they’re fine. That is not true.”
According to the Military Times, the GI Bill stipend for housing may depend on a number of factors, including what benefits veterans are entitled to and the number of courses they take.
Inzunza says another area of concern is the lack of staffing and funding at Veterans Resource Centers on campuses. A VRC provides veterans an opportunity to connect and get support in areas such as academics, peer mentorship, financial aid, benefits and disability services. However, some centers are overwhelmed to the point that they are not benefiting those who seek help.
“There are a number of campuses in California that have way over 200 people that are veterans on campus,” he says. “These VRCs are often being stretched to capacity. The people running them are telling me things like, ‘we have no funding, absolutely zero dollars going into the Resource Center.’ When things get really difficult, veterans have to find some other way or they just kind of live with it. We want to think about ways to prevent veterans from burnout and crisis.”
What services can colleges provide to veterans?
There are dozens of resources colleges and universities should be highlighting and promoting regularly to their veteran student population, including information from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) (Community-Based Outpatient Clinics, veteran centers, medical centers and county Veterans Service Organizations), to hotlines such as the Veterans Crisis Line to organizations and nonprofits dedicated to families.
Inzunza says one of the simplest ways colleges can make a difference is through outreach at on-campus events.
“This has to happen early on, and it can’t just be something that’s done once,” he says. “You have your big orientation on campus and there’s usually someone who is specifically working with veterans who says, ‘I work in the veterans office over in this building, see me if you need anything.’ But beyond that there has to be continuous engagement.”
In his discussion, he outlined several strategies that can help foster a better experience from the start for veterans:
- Deliver veteran-specific welcome materials outlining on- and off-campus services
- Conduct veteran-specific orientations that include housing resources, disability accommodations and financial aid
- Provide more assistance to School Certifying Officials. Inzunza says, “They are telling me basically, that they just don’t have support. They don’t have training. They don’t have other staff members to help them.”
- Host disability office presentations to student veterans
- Partner with the VA to make VA mental health services available. Colleges can participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, which helps offset costs that the GI Bill does not cover.
Inzunza also says hosting forums either on campus or online that give prominence to issues facing veterans can be beneficial to those who served and those who may want to learn more.
“I’ve seen at some campuses a living and learning community, where you’re exposed to people that are different than you and you get an opportunity to really talk with each other and talk about your culture,” he says. “Have a panel right at your campus. Invite some veterans to talk, and have some students come and ask questions.”
Making that forever connection
Keeping veterans actively engaged and thriving on campus can have numerous benefits. But it starts with institutions making that connection.
“If you really don’t know anything about these people, it’s hard to help them,” Inzunza says. “Having resources in place can help academic readiness in a lot of ways. If teachers are able to understand the services that are provided for veterans, that helps close that gap. And that also makes the relationship between the faculty member and the student much better because then the faculty member is seen as a person who helps.”
Forging that bond is essential for both faculty and veterans, who will then put their faith in campus leaders.
“I always tell people, it doesn’t matter what capacity you’re in working with veterans, if you are seen as someone who helps, they’re going to respond positively,” Inzunza says. “If they see you as someone they can trust, they’re going to come back to you for more help. If you’re connecting people to resources, I think this is critical. The most important thing you can do is provide someone with some sort of direction.”
Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for University Business. He can be reached at [email protected]