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From Combat to Community College: Military Service Members in the Classroom

May 2012, Volume 15, Number 5

Editor's Note: The May issues of Learning Abstracts and Leadership Abstracts are companion pieces written by Holly Wheeler, a faculty member at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. Both articles focus on the important topic and unique needs of the growing number of community college students who are veterans returning from war zones. Monroe Community College is a national leader in developing innovative, effective programs to serve military veterans.

By Holly Wheeler

The most comprehensive GI Bill since World War II, today’s Post 9/11 GI Bill is one of the most significant factors leading military service members to community colleges. With numbers of service members who have served in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan topping 1.7 million (Randall, 2012), it is likely that the veteran population at community colleges will continue to climb. The transition experience of these veterans cannot be understated and must be addressed by institutions of higher education to help this population be successful.

Veterans on college campuses today volunteered for service and have served during a heightened state of war, likely in direct combat, which makes them very different from previous generations of veterans on campus. Veterans who serve during peace time certainly deal with the adjustment to civilian life, but soldiers who attend college after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have multiple characteristics that set them apart from veterans serving during times of peace.  According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2010), 60 percent of troops have been deployed more than once and the statistics from veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are harrowing. Eighty-six percent report receiving artillery fire, 93 percent report being shot at, 89 percent were attacked or ambushed, and 77 percent fired their weapons. With a 3:1 injury-to-death ratio due to advancements in medicine and technology, veterans are more likely than at any point in history to return home injured. These upsetting statistics mean that today’s veterans are coming home shouldering unresolved feelings from their service, a world view likely shaped by combat, and possibly mental, emotional, and physical injuries. Proud of their service, veterans are re-entering communities where support for war has waned and where only about one-half of one percent of the current adult U.S. population shares their active duty experience (Pew Research Center, 2011). This can leave veterans feeling marginalized and disconnected from the civilian world.


They say war is hell. But I say it ain’t. War is the foyer to hell. The journey home from war is the threshold between a killing order and a peaceful chaos, between the rational and the distorted. […] Our bodies had been delivered from war, but our minds lingered on the battlefield. […]  Nobody knew what was coming. Nobody wanted to know. The Marines and the civilians collided into a barrage of hugs and kisses. The civilians were the same as they always were, the Marines they hugged and kissed were not the men they had once known. The consciousness of every man in that unit has been reconfigured. Our identities were altered. (Boudreau, 2008, p. 5)

While every veteran experience is different and everyone will react to his or her homecoming differently, the transition challenges mentioned by Boudreau address some of the very significant issues veterans coming to college will face:

  • The psychological shift from active duty solider to civilian is tremendous and requires that veterans assimilate their soldier experiences with the role they had before their service, which is a frustrating and often confusing process of identity renegotiation.
  • Family members often do not know how to talk to their loved ones because they do not share the military experience. Veterans also struggle with finding where they fit into families that have made adjustments while they were deployed. 
  • Resuming old friendships is often difficult for veterans because their war-time military service is very different from that of their peers in the civilian world, so it may be difficult to find a common ground for friendships.
  • The loss of military camaraderie cannot be underestimated; finding a comparable connection in the civilian world is unlikely.
  • Veterans are also adjusting to the loss of a sense of purpose. What soldiers do, when they do it, and how they do it is clear and prescriptive; by comparison, the choices they face in civilian life often feel overwhelming and destabilizing.
  • Military grade pay may not translate to a civilian job with equivalent pay and military benefits may not start immediately, so veterans may be under an additional financial burden. 
  • Many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are injured, some with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), others  with lost limbs, disfiguring scars, and myriad other service-related injuries that further hinder their transition.

Best Practices

While each veteran is unique, the following practices are designed to help faculty members develop insight into the veteran population and facilitate veterans' success as students. As with other at-risk populations, making a connection with someone on campus may make all the difference in a veteran’s decision to stay in college. An informed and sensitive faculty is an important step in facilitating the transition experience of military service members.

  1. Allow self-identification. Veteran students are not always comfortable sharing their veteran status or being singled out in class as veterans. If a student is serving or has served in the military and wants professors or fellow students to know it, he or she will say so. Asking the class if anyone is a veteran or otherwise putting a student on the spot can elicit a flight or fight response, cause severe discomfort, or otherwise put veterans on the defensive.

  2. Create and maintain a safe environment. Students need to feel comfortable in their classes and  know that asking questions, making mistakes, and sorting through ideas is part of learning; establishing an environment where students can do so without judgment from their peers or professor will help students feel safe.

  3. Build trust. Military culture is not terribly accepting of weakness, so a struggling veteran student must overcome the ingrained reaction not to ask questions. However, if a veteran knows that it is safe to do so and has built up a measure of trust with a professor, he or she may seek the help necessary for success.

  4. Don’t ask specific questions. Whether in the classroom or office, asking veterans specific questions about their service puts them on the spot and may make them uncomfortable. If faculty members know a student is a veteran and want to communicate to that student that he or she is welcome to talk about that experience, offer a general statement outside of class like, “How do you feel about being back?” instead of a more directed, “Tell me about your experiences.” The former allows the veteran to open up, but also leaves the door open for a general answer if talking is not desirable.

  5. Address service people in the syllabus. Share a willingness to work with military students and be clear about classroom and college policies regarding weekend reserve drill and deployments during the semester.

  6. Make general announcements. Announcements about veteran students and programming should be provided to the whole class. This will prevent veterans from being singled out and offer an opportunity for other students to pass on information to additional veterans.

  7. Make the classroom environment conducive to veteran success.
    • Veterans are accustomed to criterion-referenced instruction where they were given a task to perform, an explanation of the conditions under which the task was to be performed, and the standards by which the task would be considered successfully completed. Therefore, assignments that lack these elements may be confusing and problematic for veterans. Instead, offer clear objectives, instructions, and grading standards.
    • Let students pick their own seats. Some veterans like to sit facing the door in the back of the room because they are trained to assess for threats and keep others safe. Sitting in the front for these students may make them feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Other veterans, including those who may be struggling with injuries, sit in the front so they are not distracted by other students.
    • Military students are goal and task oriented, punctual, mature, and motivated as a result of their military service, so working with students who do not respect the professor or take their work seriously is challenging for veterans. Give veterans some flexibility as they adjust to this environment by allowing them to work alone initially or pairing them with motivated and dedicated like-minded students.
    • Assignments that require personal writing about a significant life experience or a personal history may be incredibly difficult for military students. Be flexible by either allowing them to write about their service in a safe, non-judgmental environment or providing an alternative assignment.

  8. Be patient at beginning of semester.
    • It may take time for some veterans to adjust to the noise and crowds of hallways during the change of classes as it may cause anxiety, confusion, and, potentially, fear. Allow a little extra time for veterans to adjust to this disorienting experience.
    • Soldiers have a clear chain of command, respect authority, and place a high value discipline and honor. The relative chaos of higher education may be overwhelming for military students. Knowing what document needs to go to which office and navigating the corridors of higher education often requires that one ask questions—a skill not always advocated by military culture. Listen to veterans’ concerns and help them find the right office to address those concerns.
    • Military decisions are made for service people so veterans may have trouble initially with decision making, critical thinking, or problem solving. They are also often not accustomed to the give and take of discussions, so they may not volunteer to participate right away.

  9. Don’t take things personally. Don’t be offended if veterans don’t self-identify, talk about their service, or respond to general questions about military service. There may be many reasons why this happens: some veterans think of their service as a job and see no reason to discuss it, others don’t talk about their service with anyone outside the military, and still others are unsure of how they feel about their service in general so talking about it is uncomfortable.

  10. Curb politics. Be sensitive to war-related discussions. That doesn’t mean not to have them, especially in classes where politics are clearly connected to the course content, but don’t put veterans on the spot to discuss their service. Most people don’t enlist in the military because of their political ideology, and asking veterans to speak for all service members is problematic and inappropriate. Veterans can also feel further alienation by discussions focusing on only one point of view or that contain information veterans feel is inaccurate or runs counter to their own service experience.

  11. Be understanding regarding military benefits. Veterans may have to wait for Veteran’s Administration (VA) appointments for up to six months, so be flexible and understanding when veterans have these appointments. Moving one could mean more delays in receiving care. Additionally, GI Bill stipends are not always timely, so veterans could go the first several weeks of the semester without the money to buy their books. Putting an extra copy on reserve at the library will help these students not fall behind while they wait for unavoidable delays.

  12. Be familiar with local resources. Keep informed about veteran-related issues and concerns by attending training, reading publications with veteran-related information, and becoming familiar with community veteran organizations and services.  

  13. Know what the campus offers. Know what resources are available on campus, including a veterans affairs office, VA representatives, veteran-specific counselors, veteran-specific courses, and disability services in order to direct students to the right office to address their questions or needs.

Serving the Veteran on Campus

Veteran students come to college with life experiences most of the people around them will not share. They are adjusting to changes in their own lives that their loved ones cannot understand. Additionally, they are negotiating a completely foreign environment—higher education—that often runs counter to their military experience. It is important for these students to make connections, form relationships, and receive support as they make this difficult shift. These guidelines will not address all the service-related challenges veterans on campus face, but a faculty that has the knowledge to empathize with their situations can facilitate this difficult transition.


Boudreau, T.E. (2008). Packing inferno: The unmaking of a Marine. Port Townsend, WA. Feral House. Pew  Research Center. (2011). The Military and sacrifice in the post 9/11 era. Pew Social and Demographic Trends. Retrieved from www.pewsocialtrends.org.

Radford, A. W. (2011). Military service members and veterans: A profile of those enrolled in undergraduate and graduate education in 2007-2008. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. 2011-163. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov.

Randall, M. (2012, January). Gap analysis: Transition of health care from department of defense to department of veterans affairs. Military Medicine,) 177(1),11-16.

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2010) The Post-9/11 GI Bill. Retrieved from http://www.gibill.va.gov.

Holly Wheeler is an Associate Professor in the English/Philosophy Department at Monroe Community College.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 05/01/2012 at 9:28 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -