Disabled Veterans Reintegration and Education Project
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Reflecting on common characteristics shared by many students with military experience can aid in promoting awareness across university campuses. This section describes the growth in veterans at the University of Arizona, educational barriers associated with transition, and examples of faculty-student interaction collected through our research.

A Growing Population

To help serve this growing population, the Student Vets Center has emerged as an important resource for veterans on campus. As enrollment of student veterans has risen in the last few years, the center has become a central site for socializing and working. By making use of the shared experience of being in the military, the center has capitalized on the camaraderie of veterans to promote a cohort mentality that encourages accountability and commitment to success. In addition, the center functions as a one-stop resource center aimed at centralizing where students can connect to other services on campus. Moreover, the center has become a site of refuge, or a geographic center on campus where student veterans can relax and feel safe from the environmental triggers present in many parts of the UA campus.  One of the main challenges facing the office is finding a way to reach the large number of student veterans who either are not aware of its existence or visit infrequently. In the last few years , the office has seen exponential growth in usage. For instance, in Spring 2010 the office hosted roughly 300 visitors per week, and occasionally had as many as one hundred veterans visit in a single day. Since Fall 2009, it has been located on the fourth floor of the Memorial Student Union. The office offers a study room, tutoring, food and refreshments, and serves as the site for the social functions of the Student Veterans of America club on campus.

Transition and Integration

Veterans who choose to enroll in higher education are situated within a broader set of transitions between their military service and their eventual role in civilian society. Thus, the transition between military service and higher education consists of longer series of smaller transitions, each of which can have residual effects. They often include transitions from civilian to military personnel, the decision to leave the military, a period of readjustment to civilian life, the shift from civilian to student, and the expected transition from student to a professional career. Each of these transitions can involve severe disruptions for individuals as their roles and social status undergo considerable shifts.

Once they arrive on university campuses, students with military experience frequently experience difficultly in transitioning to college life. They share many common characteristics with non-traditional students. Student veterans are more likely to have been married, have children, be employed, and have a variety of professional experience. Like many non-traditional and older students, they often treat their education in a practical manner – more like a job than a process of self-discovery. Their objective in pursuing an education is to develop their career, find a specific job, or retrain themselves for a new profession. There are a number of areas where student veterans from the OEF/OIF era differ from non-traditional students who are not veterans. A large percentage of veterans bring an understanding of global geopolitics and cultural awareness from their experience living outside the United States. Many veterans have in positions of leadership with significant responsibility. One student veteran described how he had to shift from being in charge of a large budget to being a “lowly undergrad:”

One week I’m in charge of forty people and the hydraulics and airframes of thirty ten million dollar aircraft kind of thing, and I’m ordering parts that probably cost five hundred thousand dollars every week.  So, I mean, and then you’re basically, in my case, the GI Bill covers tuition, but you still have to work, and then you know I’m flipping steaks in a restaurant.  … I was like alright, a couple years of this remedial crap, and I’ll be okay, you know.

Unlike undergraduates coming straight from high school, many veterans have been responsible for equipment and missions where people’s lives were at stake. In contrast, at the university they feel as if they are back to the bottom rung of the hierarchy, which can be frustrating.

Goals and Perceptions about Higher Education

In survey conducted by DVRE staff in 2011, we asked UA student veterans about their interactions with faculty and non-veteran students on the University of Arizona campus. The figure below shows results from a question that asked about how faculty, staff, and student perspectives on veterans were factors that impacted student veterans. Graph of perceptions of staff, faculty and students

The results indicate that the impact of these groups were viewed to be positive or to have no effect. Students were more likely to be seen as a having a negative impact (13%), but a majority in all three areas felt that there was a positive effect. Open-ended responses to this question suggested reactions varied considerably and depended greatly on individuals. A few people noted that several faculty and staff had been extremely supportive and helpful, and that faculty were often “deferential” and “tolerant.” Students were described by several people as neutral since they were often “apathetic in general.” The few disrespectful statements that had been made about veterans had come from students.


The "Hat Incident"

Clashes between student veterans and other members of the campus community may also arise when values come into conflict. For instance, well-intentioned academic policies may inadvertently run counter to the way that veterans comport themselves. I illustrate this type of conflict in the following example that occurred between a student veteran and her instruction during an examination. The event gained symbolic importance as it was retold among student veterans, and became known as the “Hat Incident.” Olivia, a twenty-nine-year-old who served in OIF as a Humvee mechanic, explained an incident that arose during her first exam in a large introductory course of 400 students in physical sciences. Olivia described the incident:

Ten minutes into the test, the professor hollers out, "Hey, everybody turn your hats around backwards." And I don't wear my hat backwards, you know?  Like you don't do that in the military, you know?  We just had a soldier get in trouble for that this summer.  He was wearing his hat backwards, goofing around and the Command Sergeant Major walked in and the whole command got smoked for it, you know?  You just don't do it and you don't make someone turn their hat around backward.  Like that's disrespectful. 

Olivia had no idea why it was required to turn her hat backward, and so refused to do so based on her military ethics. The teaching assistants proctoring the exam told her to turn hat around, and to make matters worse, called Olivia “a guy” in the process.  When asked to turn her hat around, Olivia refused again and began to get upset. The professor came up and asked, "Why won't you turn your hat around?"  Olivia responded, “Because it's degrading, I won't do it.”  The professor replied, "Then get out."  Olivia handed her test in and walked out.

Subsequently, Olivia made amends with the professor and was able to recover from the incident. She later met with the professor and learned that the policy on hats is aimed at preventing students from cheating by using notes written on the underside of the hat’s bill. In their face to face meeting, the professor was very understanding of Olivia’s stance, and allowed her to average her tests scores to make up for the missed exam. The larger importance of the incident stems from the conflict between the professor academic policy and Olivia’s ethical code. Neither party had been able to understand the basis for each other’s stance, which led to an unfortunate clash. Fortunately, the outcome was mutually beneficial; as Olivia put it, “a negative was turned into a positive experience.”

The central conflict in the Hat Incident was between two codes of conduct, one academic and one stemming from the US Army. Many student veterans have internalized their military codes of conduct so strongly that they would risk their academic standing in order to stay true to their personal code of conduct. Although the Hat Incident illustrates this conflict in a vivid manner, minor conflicts occur frequently on campus. They include behavior appropriate for campus but not for military veterans, such as insubordination or disrespect. Another example would be when academic freedom enables students to be critical in ways that were not appropriate for those serving in the military. Student veterans likewise complain that students are rarely held accountable for their actions (such as missing class or assignments) or their opinions (which may be based on missing evidence).