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Helping Veterans Adjust to the Classroom

When our grandfathers returned home from World War II, they were greeted as heroes. They returned to a nation committed to helping them, a nation in which the majority of people not only understood the cost of war but also felt the sacrifices that these men made. Today’s veterans return to a country where few Americans are directly impacted by war and even fewer understand the challenges that these veterans face when returning home. One sector that is trying to understand these challenges is the education sector. With the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in August 2009 (a new education benefits program for servicemen and women), colleges and universities around the country have seen a large increase in their enrollment of military veterans.

Many of these colleges and universities understand that they play a vital role in helping veterans make the transition from military life to civilian life, a transition that can be very difficult on many levels. At AAU we, too, have seen an increase in our veteran enrollment as well as the benefits and challenges that come with that. In order to help veterans succeed as students, whether onsite or online, we must ask ourselves how we can best serve their needs. It is also important to remember that regardless of what opinions we may have, we need to recognize the bravery and sacrifices that these men and women have made and to understand that many of these veterans suffer from lasting side effects.

The Northern Illinois University faculty development staff had a chance to meet with a group of veteran students attending their university and to discuss the needs and challenges that they faced as students. Here is a list of some common veteran characteristics that were excerpted from that meeting as well as from other sources.

Who are they?

  • Some veterans are older, more mature, and have more responsibilities (married life, children, continuing military duties, etc.) than traditional college-age students.
     
  • Some, but not all, veterans have been overseas and/or have seen overseas combat.
     
  • Some veterans have experienced war, death, horror, shock, fear, etc., and may still be experiencing the physical and/or mental after-effects of deployment.
     
  • Veterans are, in general, very motivated and self-discplined students with good leadership skills, who can contribute to the classroom and campus life.
     
  • Veterans, in general, are used to existing in a very structured environment in which they received clear, direct orders and specific instructions.
     
  • Veterans, in general, have a deeper understanding of the world.

What symptoms of post-active duty stress might we see in the classroom?

On returning from active duty, some veterans experience high levels of stress while trying to adjust to both civilian and student life. This stress affects many areas of their lives including their performance as students. Although most veterans suffer from some type of post-active duty stress, the veterans who are more likely to act out or isolate themselves are veterans who were on front line combat or had multiple deployments, veterans who lack a support system, and medics. According to the Student Veterans of America, some common stress symptoms that we may see in our veteran students are:

Depression, anger/irritability/rage, problems with authority, low tolerance for stress, alienation, isolation, anxiety, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, poor concentration, negative self image, memory impairment, substance abuse problems, survivor guilt or guilt over acts committed or witnessed, grief, trust issues, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, resentment, inability to connect with people who haven’t experienced military life.

What can we do to help ease their transition to life in the classroom?

The faculty development staff at Northern Illinois University compiled an excellent list of strategies for teachers to use both in and out of the classroom to help meet their veteran students’ needs and to make their transition as smooth as possible.

  • Create a trusting and caring classroom environment through your approach to all students and your teaching style so that veteran students feel comfortable to approach you and discuss their unique needs and challenges.
     
  • Encourage veteran students to contact you if they encounter circumstances that may impact their performance in your course.
     
  • Accommodate any special needs expressed by veteran students. This may include (but not be limited to) wanting to sit in the last row of the class to avoid exposing their backs, sitting away from windows, being hesitant initially to participate in discussions and missing class due to VA appointments or reserve-duty commitments.
     
  • Be willing to take the time to explain course, assignment, and university policies to veteran students as they may be used to following orders without question. Veteran students may not know they can ask for permission to submit assignments late for valid reasons, appeal grades, or request special accommodations, when necessary.
     
  • Learn about disabilities, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), that some veterans may suffer from so that they can be referred to appropriate campus services for accommodations.
     
  • Expect the same classroom responsibilities and performance from veteran students as non-veteran students (neither increased nor decreased expectations).
     
  • Help veteran students to successfully work together with civilian students on team projects and to interact with them effectively. Some veteran students may prefer working only with other veteran students because of their shared military experiences and work style, but it is important to help veteran students integrate with civilian students and vice versa.
     
  • As with all students, know how to teach veteran students who have different experiences, learning preferences and capabilities.
     
  • Involve veteran students, at their own comfort level, in coursework related discussions where they can share their service experiences and enrich the learning experience of all students.
     
  • When possible, engage veteran students in leadership opportunities to contribute to the development of other students.
     
  • Do not express in class sentiments related to war or military personnel that could alienate veteran students or put them on the spot. All veterans deserve recognition and appreciation for their service regardless of our personal opinions.

If you would like to view an excellent program on one military platoon’s members and their attempts to adjust to civilian life, Frontline aired a program called “The Wounded Platoon” on May 18, 2010. Click here to view through the PBS website.

Other resources:

Working with Re-Entry or Non-traditional Students

For more information on veterans returning to school, go to the Student Veterans of America website.

Sources:

Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center of Northern Illinois University (2010). Veterans in the Classroom. Retrieved May 27, 2010 from http://www.niu.edu/spectrum/2010/spring/veterans.shtml

Student Veterans of America (n.d.) Military to College Guide. Retrieved May 27, 2010 from http://www.niu.edu/spectrum/2010/spring/veterans.shtml

Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (n.d.) Adjusting to University Life: Veterans: Transforming from Soldier to Student. Retrieved May 26, 2010 from http://www.ipfw.edu/counseling/help/adjusting.shtml

Thomas, Annie. (2009). Life after duty: student veterans at the ‘U.’ Retrieved May 26, 2010 from http://www.michigandaily.com