Guest Blog: Enhancing Veteran Engagement at College

By Madeline Wagner, Associate Director of Grants and Contracts- Northeast Iowa Community College, Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring Program

Student veterans bring new experiences and perspectives to social and educational exchanges at a college – however, they also face unique challenges in completing their academic and career goals.

There are myriad reasons that veterans decide to pursue higher education:

  • College degrees or certifications improve career options
  • It’s an opportunity to build additional skills, and
  • Higher education codifies skills and knowledge achieved in the military.

Furthermore, higher education can offer a transition period as well as resources and assistance in the move from military to civilian life. In support of these goals, the Post 9/11 GI Bill has provided over 700,000 veterans financial support for education and housing (U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014); unfortunately, just over half of student veterans earn a degree or certificate (Altman, 2014).

To realize these benefits of higher education, student veterans must overcome certain challenges or barriers that traditional students don’t encounter. Schools nationwide have been developing a range of resources to help student vets reach their academic goals. There is no one answer to how a school should support this student population – and it won’t happen overnight.

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) has earned a place on the Military Friendly Schools listing, compiled by G.I. Jobs magazine, for five consecutive years, but there are still many pieces to put into place before we reach our goals of comprehensive support services for our student veterans. Central to NICC efforts to assist student veterans in their academic and career goals is the Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring program, which recently became a chapter of Student Veterans of America.

Many student veterans report a sense of alienation when they join the college world. A supportive learning environment can ease the transition process. NICC recognizes that some veterans may feel disconnected from the mainstream of the student body. Community building with students, faculty, and staff who have had similar experiences is one strategy to increase engagement. Student veterans groups offer positive experiences and opportunities to interact with the broader campus community that help veterans to transition smoothly from service to the classroom.

In the 2013-2014 school year the Vet2Vet group partnered with two other student organizations to conduct awareness and inclusion activities on campus including a presentation about how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) impacts returning veterans and their families and an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) demonstration in observation of Veteran’s Day.

Beyond a supportive community student veterans may need assistance in navigating resources to address issues that are non-academic in nature, but still impact academic achievement. Currently at NICC, the Vet2Vet peer mentors (who are discharged veterans, students still serving on active duty, or members of the National Guard or Reserve) are the first line of assistance in helping student veterans connect with Veterans Affairs. Supported by the campus coordinator of disability services, the Vet2Vet staff helps student veterans fill out forms to secure medical resources, connects student veterans with campus services, and provides referrals to other outside organizations.

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President. 

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President.

It’s important for a school to determine which services should be crafted as veteran-specific. Some services (such as academic advising) may not need a veteran focus because the entire student population benefits (American Council on Education, 2012). It is also important to remember that not all student veterans will want to take advantage of targeted services, or be identified within the broader college community as a student veteran.

In the upcoming year NICC will build its commitment to student veterans by taking the following steps:

  • Providing faculty and staff with veteran-friendly service training
  • Codify policy regarding student veterans’ leaves of absence
  • Building a web presence for veterans
  • Exploring the need for a dedicated veteran services staff member
  • Working with other state higher education institutions to develop firm credit-for-prior-learning standards
  • Partnering with statewide veteran-friendly initiatives such as Home Base Iowa

What services and best practices have your organization found most helpful in supporting student veterans?