Supporting Transitioning and Returning Service Members: The STARS Project at Monroe Community College
May 2012, Volume 25, Number 5
Editor's Note: The May issues of Leadership Abstracts and Learning 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
Nearly 1.7 million veterans have returned home from service in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half a million of them who served after September 11, 2001, enrolled in college classes last year under the Post 9-11 GI Bill. While veterans make up only a small percentage of undergraduates overall, 43 percent of military students who attend college do so at public, two-year institutions (Randall, 2012). Institutions of higher education are working hard to prepare for an influx of students who have experienced what almost everyone around them has not: extended military conflict. Many of these veterans will have served multiple deployments directly in a war zone, many will be visibly impaired, and many others will have invisible mental and emotional injuries. They will each be adjusting to changes in their own lives that are so dramatic they may be unfathomable to most of the people around them,
People who have seen unspeakable horror, have been trained to fight, have seen fellow service members killed, have perhaps taken the lives of others, have been deployed multiple times, have been separated from their families for months or years at a time, have never seen their new baby, and may have had all these experiences and still be only twenty-two years old: these and many others are the veterans who are coming to college campuses to pursue dreams of higher education.
Veterans as Students
While not all veterans have served overseas or experienced direct combat, they are, nonetheless, still facing a destabilizing and disorienting transition to civilian and collegiate life. Delayed entry to college, financial independence, single parenthood, full-time employment, part-time enrollment, dependents, and lack of a high school diploma are factors that put students at risk for not completing a degree. Community college populations serve students with more of these risk factors than do four-year institutions, and veterans, while sharing some of these general risk factors, are at additional risk because of their military service. Many veterans will come to campus with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the two signature injuries of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both injuries can cause sleep disruption, anxiety, social isolation, and concentration problems, among other factors. In addition, veterans need to negotiate a confusing world of higher education that is not as straightforward and structured as military culture. In the civilian world, people are not reprimanded quickly for mistakes, are not ordered what to do when, and do not always respect those around them, behaviors that are foreign to the military experience. Re-establishing relationships after military service is also often difficult for veterans as they are still coping with their own service experiences and have difficulty talking about them with others. Long separations also strain relationships, whether with family members or friends. Finally, veterans are negotiating the notoriously confusing federal bureaucracy as they determine what health and educational benefits to apply for and how to access those services. Without assistance, these risk factors can easily become insurmountable obstacles to veteran student success.
Located in Rochester, New York, Monroe Community College (MCC) serves some 37,000 students in over 90 degree and certificate programs. Over the last three years, the veteran student enrollment has increased from 686 students in 2009 to 723 students in 2012. Because veteran students have needs that are different from their peers, MCC has committed to helping this special population succeed. Accordingly, in the fall of 2011, MCC created two new full-time positions: a coordinator for Veterans’ Services and a Veteran’s Administration (VA) Certifying Official. Additionally, MCC was awarded a federal grant to establish the Academy for Veterans’ Success, which funds four additional positions: a coordinator of Veterans’ Success, a part-time administrative assistant, a part-time veteran-specific academic advisor, and a part-time admissions advisor for veteran students. While these positions are clearly vital to serving this increasing population, they addressed only one side of veteran student success: student services. What the college lacked was a way to educate the college community about the challenges and concerns of the veteran population. An educated and knowledgeable faculty and staff are vital to helping veterans make the difficult transition to higher education.
The STARS Project
The Supporting Transitioning and Returning Service members (STARS) project was developed in response to the expressed need for understanding and supporting the success of student veterans. This project has three main objectives:
- To educate the college community about the needs, concerns, and challenges of veteran students;
- To develop a network of faculty, staff, and administrators willing to provide assistance, support, and a safe place for veterans; and
- To provide visible support across campuses for veteran students.
The overarching goal was for faculty, staff, and administrators to attend one workshop in each of four sessions in order to earn a "veteran-friendly" designation. A sticker with this designation communicates to the college community that the person displaying it has completed the STARS project training. It serves the following purposes:
- It provides visible support and commitment to veteran students.
- It communicates to veterans that the office displaying the sticker is a safe place.
- It communicates to veterans that they will receive help or resources if they ask for them.
- It communicates to academic advisors which faculty members will understand student veteran concerns, which helps veteran students feel more positively about their experiences.
What the sticker does not mean is that the person displaying it can directly solve problems or counsel students; instead, he or she will have the knowledge and experience to advise the veterans.
The founding committee includes members of the teaching faculty from four disciplines: biology, English, geology, and applied technology. Four additional founding members work in various student and college support areas: purchasing, student services, veterans’ services, and the Teaching and Creativity Center. When the coordinator for the Academy for Veterans’ Success was hired, he joined the committee as well, for a total of nine members. Four members of the committee are veterans themselves. Representing three different campuses, various academic disciplines, and a broad range of positions across the college provides a strong balance of ideas and experience from which to develop a diverse and inclusive program.
The STARS program includes a series of workshops, each designed to address a specific issue or area of concern to veteran students as they transition to college. Continuity was provided from workshop to workshop by keeping the agenda consistent:
- Opening of session by the Coordinator of Veterans’ Services, which provides an overview of the student veteran population as well as programs and services provided for veteran students and their families
- Introduction to the program or panel by project chair
- Main program or panel
- Veteran student testimony
- Question/answer period with presenter(s) and student veteran
- Closing by project chair
The program was divided into four different workshop sessions. The first session of the fall and spring semesters was designed for all attendees and addressed topics that were relevant to anyone working with veterans in higher education. In the second half of each semester, two additional workshops were targeted toward specific audiences.
Crossing Cultural Barriers I: Military Culture. This was the inaugural program for the series and was designed to educate attendees on military culture. Two Army Sergeants explained what happens from the day a person enlists in the military through boot camp, schooling, and receipt of his or her first set of orders. The session provided information regarding military values, military command structure, training exercises, and expectations of soldiers.
Crossing Cultural Barriers II: Transition to Civilian/Academic Culture. Designed for teaching faculty, this session addressed what happens when a soldier separates from military service entirely or leaves overseas deployment and returns home to attend college. It was presented by the Army Strong Community support manager and covered transition challenges such as the relative freedom of decision making, changes from a military-grade paycheck to a civilian one, concerns about finding jobs using military experience, and ways the emotional and physical symptoms of stress after military service may impact a student’s transition to higher education.
Understanding Veteran Benefits. Recommended for non-teaching faculty, staff, and administrators, this session was conducted by a VA Benefits Specialist. It addressed the various benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill as well as the complications students face trying to understand and navigate the benefit options.
Understanding Veteran Health Care. A doctor from the Rochester Veteran Center provided an overview of the challenges veterans face when dealing with service-related injuries such as PTSD and TBI as they relate to the ability to assimilate into civilian and collegiate life.
Veterans in the Classroom. Three teaching faculty members, two of whom are veterans, from different academic departments, and one student composed this all-MCC panel. This panel designed for faculty discussed the difference between taking courses in the military and taking college courses, the reasons veterans like to sit in certain places in the room, the reasons veterans may have trouble working with their peers, and ways to handle situations when a veteran misses classes due to service-related activities.
Supporting Student Development Needs of Veterans. Created for administrators, staff, and non-teaching faculty, this panel consisted of a variety of internal experts, including an executive dean, the director of MCC’s Homeland Security Institute, and the coordinator for Veteran Services. It addressed a variety of needs student veterans have on campus, such as advisement, personal development, and finding resources, as well as how to use military experience to find jobs and what kinds of opportunities the community has for its veterans.
Why this Program Works
With MCC's veteran population growing to the largest in upstate New York, the college needed to ensure that its veterans were well served by a knowledgeable college community. The STARS program fills that need and works well for a variety of reasons:
- Timing. In response to the increased population, the college had invested in developing new positions and was awarded a federal grant. A variety of other initiatives were also active on campus including a veterans club, a veteran-specific orientation, and a military mentoring program; this project filled a need that had not yet been addressed.
- Content. Each topic is relevant, timely, and tailored specifically to veterans in community colleges.
- Originality. Many programs for veterans adapt programs that have worked for other specific populations, with adult student programming as the most common adaptation. Doing so, however, does not best serve veterans because, although they are adults, they have very different needs. This program is based on MCC veteran-specific need as identified by both the veterans and the Veterans’ Services professionals.
- Expertise. Each presenter is an expert working in the areas of focus for the presentation. This connection between employment experience and presentation subject matter ensures that content is relevant and current as well as specifically related to MCC.
- Connections to the Community. Community colleges are tied to their communities and need to work with them to educate the population. Programming that continues to connect community members and forge community partnerships benefits the local veteran community in addition to the college.
- Long-Term Potential. The STARS project has the ability to continue, grow, and change as the needs of the college community change. Speakers willingly volunteered their time, so there is no cost in offering the workshops.
- Inclusion of Students. Any initiative that is designed to educate people regarding a specific population should include people from that population. Student veteran testimony adds credibility to the program and provides tangible examples in a safe environment to better illuminate the very real experiences of war-time service.
- Commitment by MCC. The final element that has helped make these sessions so successful is commitment through every level of the college for veteran student success. MCC’s leadership encourages innovation, the faculty and staff are motivated to work together on interdisciplinary projects, and attending professional development activities is encouraged.
Cultivating a Knowledgeable Community
This program is in its infancy, yet it has had dramatic success and growth potential. It is also the only program of its kind among the ten or so colleges and universities serving the greater Monroe County area. MCC’s veteran population will likely continue to grow, which will require that faculty and staff continue to have opportunities to learn about the experiences and needs of this student group. Continuing current partnerships and developing new ones also provides continued opportunity for growth.
Creating a positive, inclusive, and comfortable learning environment in which students can grow, learn, and succeed can only be developed through effort and commitment by all levels of an institution. As increasing numbers of veteran students come to community colleges trying to balance readjustment issues along with their studies, it is incumbent upon institutions of higher education to ease this destabilizing transition. The first step to doing so is to cultivate a knowledgeable college community.
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.
Holly Wheeler is an Associate Professor in the English/Philosophy Department at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.