Moving Veteran Students from the Margins to the Center
By: Marsha Guenzler-Stevens
It began with a single student, a young man who enrolled at the University of Maryland (UMD) after deployment in Iraq and a long convalescence at Walter Reed Medical Center. His transition to college was flawed, in part because we as an institution were failing our veterans. He was operating at the margins of the university until he found his way to the vice president for student affairs. Moved by his story, she convened a committee of colleagues from across campus in 2007 to explore how we might better address the needs of all military veteran students. This task force gathered data from the small group of veterans enrolled at the time (about two hundred students), interviewed parents and alumni, and studied the anticipated effects of the post–9/11 GI Bill. In the end, we had one simple aim: we wanted UMD to be a center of excellence for serving veteran students.
Achieving this goal would require more than a single office or admissions strategy; it would mean transforming the whole university community. Ten years ago, with a little money, two graduate assistants, my experience as an advocate for Vietnam-era veterans, and my social capital, the Adele H. Stamp Student Union–Center for Campus Life launched a Veteran Student Life office. We enlisted faculty from the College of Education, the School of Public Health, and the Department of Sociology to join colleagues in student and academic affairs in moving veteran students from the margins to the center.
Early on, we were reminded of UMD Professor Emeritus Nancy Schlossberg’s transition theory (Schlossberg, Waters, and Goodman 1995) and theories of marginality and mattering (Schlossberg 1989). We hung our ideas for the veterans program inside this frame.
Theory to Practice
Schlossberg posits a range of factors that can leave people feeling as if they don’t fit in, including some related to the experience of transitioning from one role or culture to another. Our veteran students talked about their transitions from the military (a culture defined by rules, the hardships of war, and the power of shared mission) to the university (a culture defined by youth and open possibility, where many felt isolated and disadvantaged by rusty academic skills). One young man described being unmoored by the clash of cultures when he returned from his deployment in Afghanistan and moved into a first-year residence hall. He was not alone. With experiences like his in mind, we planned for institutional transformation using Schlossberg’s theory of marginality and mattering (with key terms in bold below) as a guide.
First, we asked, how would we pay attention to veterans? We began by transforming the admissions process, connecting with veterans at the point of inquiry and considering their military service and leadership in admissions decisions. Current veteran students began calling admitted students and inviting them to orientation programs and, eventually, to adventure orientation weekends and family programs. We added additional staff and launched academic transition programs, including an online Math Boot Camp to help veterans prepare for math placement exams. We created a Got Your Six (got your back, in military speak) program to train faculty and staff to honor veterans’ unique leadership and life experiences. We held focus groups and listened to veterans’ feedback. The Counseling Center staff consulted the Center for Deployment Psychology in Bethesda, Maryland, to learn new treatment protocols for veterans and those with military-related post-traumatic stress disorder, and we recognized the unique experiences of women veterans, veterans of color, and LGBTQ veterans. As we embraced the veteran student population, administrators and faculty across campus began referring to students as “my veterans.”
We told stories to convey to veterans and members of the campus community that veterans were important and that they mattered. These stories led us to set a holistic mission for Veteran Student Life, focusing on the mind, body, and spirit. When we garnered our first federal grant supporting veterans, our congressional representative called to say that “we did it!” That congressman and Maryland’s secretary of veterans affairs regularly visited campus and used our stories to inform federal and state legislation. We connected with other higher education institutions in the state, both private and public, enhancing a collective desire to serve veteran students. We also connected veteran students with one another, creating a TerpVets student organization. While many veteran students wanted to be free of their military past and enjoy “just being a student,” others longed for the camaraderie they had previously enjoyed. In the end, we determined that we needed a dedicated safe space from which to provide services and support. One trustee provided a sizeable gift to partially support the construction of such a space, which colleagues in Facilities Management—many of them Vietnam-era veterans—helped to design and construct. Alumni and parents of current students committed resources to equip and furnish the facility.
We developed rituals to honor our veterans and make them feel appreciated, including Veterans Day celebrations and Veterans Week programming that involved coordination with the Career Center, the LGBT Equity Center, the Counseling Center, and colleagues in the student union. Ten years ago, I asked the athletic department to provide two hundred football tickets, to put veterans on the field during a conference game, and to share veterans’ stories in video clips on the scoreboard. That practice has become an annual homecoming for our veteran students and alumni, and the football game and reception now boast an attendance of over seven hundred military-affiliated individuals. The event includes an hour-long ceremony recognizing scholarship recipients and their benefactors; with the support of alumni, families, and friends, the scholarship program has grown from one to forty-four scholarships.
We wanted to ensure that our veterans experience ego extension—the sense that others are proud of their successes and sympathize with their failures. As we added staff to Veteran Student Life, we sought allies in each academic college and in other areas of student services, including the Learning Assistance Service, Disability Support Services, and the Counseling Center. The Smith School of Business added full-time staff to support veterans, and the Council of Deans provided the resources for UMD to become a Yellow Ribbon Campus. Working with colleagues at the University of Michigan, we launched Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE), training veteran students to advise and guide their peers. We changed our institutional policies related to transfer credit, deployment, and military service for members of the National Guard and Reserves. We tailored resources to first-generation college students and, with a disproportionate number of women veterans compared to national averages, we crafted interventions specifically for women. One benefactor provided funding for a tutoring program focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When we sat down with StoryCorps to record our veterans’ stories, we heard of setbacks and obstacles—but more often, we heard of resiliency, support, and community.
Schlossberg inspired us to craft community among veterans and connect that community with others on campus. We wanted veteran students to know that people are depending on them. The bent toward service that inspired many to enlist motivated us to partner with Team River Runner (a recreational program for wounded veterans) and UMD’s Department of Recreation and Wellness to create outreach and programming for veterans with disabilities. Veteran students became teaching assistants and student organization presidents; they served on university committees and as commencement speakers. They were touted in university videos and invited to testify on Capitol Hill. Associations and publications commended the university as “veteran friendly,” and our veteran enrollment swelled to over 1,200.
A Full Circle
The theories of Nancy Schlossberg helped light our path—but the journey led us back to Nancy. When Nancy and the members of her family foundation, the Kamin Foundation, heard of our work, they asked how they could help. When we told them about the emergency expenses that often overwhelmed veterans and their families, from medical fees to housing costs, Nancy and her family started the UMD Veterans Crisis Fund. With each disbursement, this institution—with Nancy Schlossberg’s help—is reminding our veteran students that they matter.
Schlossberg, Nancy K. 1989. “Marginality and Mattering: Key Issues in Building Community.” New Directions for Student Services 1989: 5–15.
Schlossberg, Nancy K., Elinor B. Waters, and Jane Goodman. 1995. Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Practice with Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Springer Publishing.
Marsha Guenzler-Stevens is Director of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union–Center for Campus Life at the University of Maryland. This article first appeared in AAC&U Diveristy & Democracy, Fall 2017 Vol. 20, No.4