Veterans’ Interaction Can Aid Academic Transition

LONG BEACH, CALIF.—Wendy Lewis went from military service to school and seemed to be lacking one key to success in life outside the Army—structure.

Lewis, a pre-med student at California State University, said her involvement in campus organizations provided her that structure. Campus leaders in student government also helped her get past the bad impressions she had of students she met in class.

Lewis recently participated on a student panel during a Council of State Governments Policy Academy, “Veterans Initiatives: Increasing Educational Attainment.” The goal of the five panels, according to Marshall Thomas, director of Veterans Affairs Services at California State Long Beach and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, was to discuss how to go beyond simply saying “thank you for your service,” and how to best help veterans achieve educational success.

Speakers included people with extensive experience working with veterans as they returned to school during and following their military service. Panelists discussed methods of veteran outreach, military training accreditation methods and other important strategies to increase student veteran retention. 

On the student panel, Lewis was joined by fellow student Mike Wang and California-based Ashford University graduate Ivan Gutierrez. The students shared their experiences to help attendees understand the student perspective.

Wang suggested the creation of a space where veterans can interact with each other on campus, similar to the Veterans Service Center at California State University Long Beach.

“Healing happens without professionals and titles,” said Wang, a second-year master’s student.

In addition, he said, being around other veterans helped them acclimate to university life. He and Gutierrez said this can help prepare other veterans for higher education in the future.

“Vets understand vets,” said Wang.

Gutierrez had struggled at another university and in the workforce before finding success at Ashford. 

Gutierrez, a management and program analyst at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, attributed his success to his ability to trust the institution to work in his best interests. 

While all three students had positive experiences, they also had faced difficulties in their educational process. One of the biggest was becoming acclimated to the education process. They all were offered transitional classes, but either opted out or didn’t think the course was helpful. 

Other speakers reiterated the students’ suggestions for veteran success.

Tanya Ang, interim director of Veterans’ Programs at the American Council on Education, spoke during the Navigating the Transition to Student Life panel.

“Retention and attainment will be better if someone is manually working with them through the process,” said Ang. 

The American Council of Education’s “Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions” is just one of the programs available to institutions of higher education to make them more welcoming to student veterans. One aspect of the toolkit is an emphasis on student services, not only helping veterans through higher education, but into civilian life. 

Poppy Fitch, director of student access and wellness at Ashford University, explained the importance of meeting students where they are at in the educational process. 

Fitch told a story of one student veteran who refused to believe he needed to meet with an academic counselor and would never make an appointment. Instead of letting him skate by, Fitch took initiative and began taking walks to campus with him during her lunch breaks. She talked to him as a friend and offered study suggestions that helped him excel in class without him ever having to step in her office.

The policy academy was a part of CSG’s “State Pathways to Prosperity” initiative led by Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the 2014 CSG national chair. 

Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman, who chairs the Military and Veterans’ Concerns Subcommittee, said this policy academy is part of a two-year plan to produce a CSG policy and practice framework. This framework will provide policy recommendations to inform and educate state policymakers on the issues veterans face. The subcommittee will be researching issues such as veteran identification, unemployment and academic completion. 

“It is important to research all of these points,” said Spearman, “so we can better serve those who have served us.”

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