Staff Voices - From Soldier to Student: Helping Veterans Succeed in College

Staff Voices - From Soldier to Student: Helping Veterans Succeed in College

One of the programs at CDP that I’m most proud of is the University Counseling Center Core Competency program, or UC4. This is a day-long program designed to provide training to universities in matters related to military psychology, and through my travels I’ve been fortunate to meet literally dozens of on-campus personnel who provide direct services to service members and veterans on a college campus.

Some of the material included in the UC4 was presented at a panel discussion during the recent APA convention in Orlando, FL. Along withCraig Bryan, PsyD, Associate Director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, University of Utah, and Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Psychology Faculty at the University of Texas, San Antonio, we were able to present and discuss several elements that challenge both universities and service members/veterans in the intersection of campus life and military service during the presentation From Soldier to Student: Helping Veterans Succeed in College.

Dr. Bryan outlined the many ways that military culture can influence the experience of a veteran student both socially and in the classroom. For example, unit cohesion is a highly valued component of service, and the trust for fellow service members that results can be a protective factor in areas of career, task/mission completion, psychiatric concerns, and social standing. While in the military, trusting your fellow soldier, marine, airman, or sailor can be a life-saving element of your experience. On campus, however, the “unit” may not be readily available or easy to find…and if the unit isn’t there, the veteran can feel isolated, out of place, or even question his or her ability to thrive. Dr. Bryan also provided important examples of the complexity of the combat experience; combat veterans can feel exhilarated during combat, rendering the resulting campus experience “boring.” How the veteran adjusts to this type of transition is a crucial factor in on-campus well-being.

Administrative challenges within higher education was discussed by Dr. McNaughton-Cassill. She was able to address the ways institutions are moving forward with ways to improve the campus environment for veterans. Reaching veterans on a college campus can be a huge challenge, as many universities only have fragments of usable information regarding how many veterans are on campus, and reaching them for programming can be difficult. For example, although a campus may know how many veterans are utilizing G.I. Bill benefits, we know that not all veterans utilize the program. Further, National Guard or Reserve students on campus may not yet be eligible for these benefits. Therefore, it can be difficult to accurately describe any particular campus profile. She was also able to discuss ways that faculty and staff may sometimes voice opinions or make comments that can be perceived by veterans – who are likely not in uniform and can therefore “blend in” with all other students – as insulting, invalidating, or as evidence that the veteran “might not belong.”

I spoke on matters related to counseling center clinician as well as the need to prioritize outreach efforts as a campus-wide challenge, rather a task left specifically to a Veterans Service Office. Regarding outreach, as a matter of cultural awareness, it behooves a university to prioritize outreach to the service member and veteran population, as this is a significant segment of an undergraduate population (average: 4%). It is a population with unique experiences, culture, and even language. Although the population shares a culture, individual members vary widely in terms of individual background; and each individual, while subject to more general protective and risk factors, can also prevail or succumb to highly different stressors. Further, the stigma and barriers to care perceived by service members and veterans can be an overarching concern on campus.

Further, for counseling center clinicians, fundamental competence in how military and campus life intersect should also be augmented by advanced training and proficiency in evidence-based psychotherapies for treating PTSD within the frame of a counseling center structure. Highly effective, short-term therapy models such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) can be offered in a counseling center, and treatment for PTSD can be offered in less than a semester. It is imperative that counseling centers have clinicians offering this type of service, as we know that close to 30% of veterans on a campus report that they experienced some sort of trauma during their military service that continues to bother them.

Follow-up discussion with panel participants included questions and comments regarding specific outreach programs (peer-to-peer programs are becoming more frequent and popular, training in evidence-based treatments are desired), as well as comments regarding how to better understand some behaviors of veterans on campus (reluctance to self-identify, driving habits, the concept of differentiating “alert and aware” vs. the psychiatric symptom of hypervigilance).

With nearly one million veterans attending undergraduate institutions, we panelists were quite happy to be able to present these ideas to interested and invested parties, and we all hope to continue the work and the discussion as we move forward.

What are the elements of the intersection of campus life and military connection that you have found challenging?

Please see the American Council on Education Military Programs for important studies, publications, and statistics regarding service members and veterans on campus.



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American Council on Education, (2009). Military service members and veterans in higher education: what the new GI Bill may mean for postsecondary institutions. www.acenet.edu.

American Council on Education, (2009). From soldier to student: Easing the transition of service members on campus. www.acenet.edu.

Bonar, Ted C. and Domenici, Paula L.(2011) 'Counseling and Connecting with the Military Undergraduate: The Intersection of Military Service and University Life', Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 25:3, 204 — 219.

Hoge, C.W., Castro, C. A., Messer, S. C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D. I., Koffman, R. L. (2004). Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351(1), 13-22.

Keane, T. M., Weathers, F. W., Foa, E. B. (2000). Diagnosis and Assessment. In E. Foa, T. Keane & M. Friedman (Eds.), Effective Treatments for PTSD (pp. 18-36). New York: Guilford Press.

MHAT-VI, (2009). Mental health advisory team 6. Office of the Command Surgeon US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and Office of The Surgeon General United States Army Medical Command.

Milliken, C. S., Auchterlonie, J. L., Hoge, C. W. (2007). Longitudinal Assessment of Mental Health Problems Among Active and Reserve Component Soldiers Returning From the Iraq War. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298(18), 2141-2148.

Student Veterans of America, (2008). Military to college guide for student veterans. www.studentveterans.org.

Student Veterans of America, (2009). Veteran center handbook for student veterans. www.studentveterans.org.

Tanielian, T., Jaycox, L. H., Schell, T. L., Marshall, G. N., Vaiana, M. E. (2008). Treating the Invisible Wounds of War: Conclusions and Recommendations. In T. Tanielian & L. Jaycox (Eds.), Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery (pp. 431-453).  Santa Monica, CA: RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.

Staff Voices - From Soldier to Student: Helping Veterans Succeed in College | Center for Deployment Psychology


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