Support veteran resource centers beyond just providing a space.
Veteran resource centers are the foundation of veteran-friendly practice. Transition issues can be extremely sensitive, and veterans need a physical space to connect to resources and to one another.
Provide dedicated space where students can study, build a support network, and learn about resources specific to their needs from trained staff. Office staff should have direct knowledge of student services on campus and of VA benefits. The support of peers makes veterans less likely to become isolated and more likely to share resources, advocate together for veteran-related issues on campus, and be active participants in student life.
Knowledgeable VRC staff with institutional memory is essential. Too often, campuses will staff VRCs with students, and while this is helpful on a peer level, these positions have a high degree of turnover, and veterans notice when staffing is inconsistent. VRC staff are the conduit to both veteran and nonveteran-specific services, promoting campus and community engagement and supporting the academic and professional goals of student veterans. Campuses that provide paid VRC staff positions are better able to support veteran and VRC needs.
But it is important to note that even the concept of a VRC is almost universally the result of student advocacy, the efforts of a faculty champion, and independent fundraising. In the absence of administration buy-in, staff and veterans themselves are left to advocate for veterans’ needs.
Yet the most important factor in the success of veteran resource centers is support from administration. Ultimately, the colleges veterans want to attend have the most veteran-specific resources. If they see the VRC is under-resourced, veterans will wonder why they should give them their GI Bill and tuition dollars.
Educate academic and career advisors on military occupational specialties and transferrable credit.
Academic counseling needs to consider the unique needs of those who are receiving GI Bill benefits and how it impacts their coursework. Further, they need to give the right advice about military transfer credits, priority registration, tutoring, accommodation, housing, transportation, mental wellness, and post-college careers.
Throughout service, military personnel attend specialty schools to develop skills and knowledge which they employ in the real world and in hostile environments. The government recognizes this learning and universities must do the same. Transfer credits must move beyond the most obvious, such as physical education credit.
Having a veteran-specific academic counselor would be a great resource for veterans as they enter college and pursue their degrees. With a clear picture of military skills and credits, advisors can be more effective and help students make wise decisions about their academic life. Making an assessment with the student on their military work history is a great opportunity to build rapport.
Offer opportunities for peer support.
In the absence of a clear mission, it can be hard to find direction. Peer mentors satisfy both needs. Veterans often keep an eye on one another and may offer help to those who appear to have trouble. Having a place to connect at VRCs is vital, and veterans often suggest that veteran communal living could prevent veteran crises.
Creating a peer mentor program with third or fourth-year students and alumni is a great way to increase social supports. Partnering incoming veterans with mentors at student veteran orientations could help catch veteran needs on the front-end.
Provide strong mental health services and support.
Train staff in proper methods to address military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, as well as housing resources and other case management, all of which are issues shown to affect their academic experience. Consider a Memorandum of Understanding with the VA to provide on-campus services.
For many students, transportation to the VA and appointment availability are almost insurmountable barriers to care. Onsite services reduce stigma, encourage healthcare utilization, improve student experience, and can prevent suicidality.
Partner with the VA to make VA mental health services available on campus.
Providing VA mental health services on campus will streamline access to mental health services for veterans who are unable to go to the VA or a Vet Center, or for those who are less likely to engage in services proactively due to stigma or other factors.
Having a therapist specifically trained to treat veterans with trauma or issues stemming from their military service is crucial to their treatment plan. Providing regular office hours in VRCs allows veterans to access counselors when they are in crisis or when they are simply struggling with coursework and other obligations.
Provide accessible high quality GI Bill benefit assistance to veterans and support to certifying officials.
Certifying officials are overburdened and undertrained. This means they run the risk of providing inconsistent or incorrect information on GI Bill and other benefits to veterans. Many veterans have had to do the research themselves; others visit student centers often to remind certifying officials of deadlines. So many certifying officials have too-large caseloads and competing responsibilities.
Colleges have a responsibility of investing GI Bill dollars wisely and responsibly, and that starts with getting the paperwork right. Supporting certifying officials so they are less burdened and more available to veterans is an important best practice.
Make disability services for military-connected students a priority.
Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder will often feel anxious or hypervigilant. Traumatic brain injury affects the ability to process information due to cognitive impairment caused by blast injuries. Veterans may also have physical injuries or mobility issues.
Veterans are often unaware of accommodations to assist them in class and during tests, and some veterans report that provision of disability accommodations is inconsistent even among veterans with very similar needs. Student and faculty understanding of veteran rights to accommodations must be clearly explained and enforced.
Disability offices can visit VRCs and explain how accommodations work. Faculty can include information in their syllabus and go one step further by providing an explanation of the process and how to access disability services.
Ensure faculty provides consistent support.
Sometimes faculty feel unable to proactively engage veterans to better understand their needs for fear of making veterans disclose information they do not wish to share. On the flipside, veterans may perceive that faculty lack an understanding of veteran needs and services.
This presents a challenge for faculty. Where can they get the information they need to support their students? How can they offer support without making veterans feel uncomfortable?
If faculty are not equipped with knowledge of and resources for the veteran population, a couple possibilities can happen. Faculty may seek first-hand knowledge through student veterans, which may or may not be successful. Or they could rely on limited knowledge they have obtained from often misinformed or biased sources.
In either of these scenarios, student veterans will receive inconsistent levels of support. Therefore, it is critical for institutions to provide regular training on veteran culture, needs, and resources. This allows all faculty to have a fundamental skillset that will help them serve veterans consistently.
Further, communicating with disability offices ensures faculty are aware of accommodation and how they can support veterans. Inviting disability offices to come speak during class is a good way to ensure veterans are aware of how they can be better supported in the classroom.