Dr. Solomon is an instructor in the Department of First-Year Programs at Washington State University.


I became an advocate for student veterans in a somewhat selfish way. At age 22, while I was beginning graduate school and teaching college, I was also dating my now-husband, who was 23 and recently out of the military. His military service qualified him for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which paid for his undergraduate education at a local community college.

I was teaching at a very traditional college where almost all of the students were between the ages of 18 and 23 and making the transition from living at home with their parents. My teaching there inspired my husband to transfer schools the following year to continue his education at a larger campus, with the added benefit of being closer to me. But moving from community college, where many students are nontraditional, to a highly traditional campus at age 24 was a culture shock.

To say that his transition to college was difficult — as an adult who had served in the military, completed a tour of duty overseas in wartime, and had more life experience than he asked for — would be an understatement. And it wasn't because he was underprepared to be a college student, or because he didn't have academic chops; it was because he was prepared differently than almost every other student in his classes.

Having a veteran in your class means having someone who might be older than you, more experienced and knowledgeable than you in many ways, but who nonetheless needs to learn the exact same information that you are teaching the rest of the class.

When traditional students enter our classrooms, we see them as brand new, inexperienced, and in need of education both inside and outside of the classroom. They emerge into adulthood through the college experience, which is different from nontraditional students who enroll in college already equipped with some degree of adult life experience.

Being a traditional student comes with its own unique challenges, as I've addressed in some of my previous blog posts. And yet, there is no denying that there is something very different about having a student veteran in the college classroom. Having a veteran in your class means having someone who might be older than you, more experienced and knowledgeable than you in many ways, but who nonetheless needs to learn the exact same information that you are teaching the rest of the class.

How can we convey the material to a nontraditional student in a way that accounts for all their strengths and differences, while also not making them stand out more than they already do?

A group of students in a classroom raise their hands

Who Are the Veterans in Our College Classrooms?

What makes student veterans so different from their traditional college student counterparts, aside from the obvious fact that have a different life experience in the form of military service?

One major difference, as in the case of my husband, is age. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI), only 15% of student veterans fall in the age range of traditional college students (18-23), while the overwhelming majority are between the ages of 24 and 40. Because of this, 47% of student veterans are married, 46% are parents, and 10% are divorced. And, in additional to familial responsibilities, 46% also work full or part time while in school.

Disabilities like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury will not necessarily be seen or understood by [veterans'] instructors and classmates, making it even more difficult to navigate college life and exacerbating existing mental health challenges.

But the most overlooked and pressing difference that student veterans face is their disability status. A staggering 51% of student veterans report having a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability rating, and most have a disability rating of 50% or higher. However, the number of student veterans with a disability is likely even higher, if one factors in those who do not report their VA-connected disability rating, or those who have not yet had their disability approved and rated by the VA.

Eighty percent of student veterans with a reported disability say that their disabilities cause them stress in school. While some may suffer from physical disabilities that make everyday life difficult, student veterans' disabilities are not always visible. Disabilities like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury will not necessarily be seen or understood by their instructors and classmates, making it even more difficult to navigate college life and exacerbating existing mental health challenges.

How Do Veterans Perform in College?

Before getting into the struggles that veterans face in college classrooms — and trust me, there are many — I want to establish one thing very clearly: Despite the challenges, student veterans statistically have a high college success rate in regards to GPA and degree completion. According to Student Veterans of America (SVA), student veterans have a 72% success rate for earning postsecondary degrees and have a higher average GPA (3.35) compared to traditional students (2.94).

And, lest anyone think that high rate of success can be attributed to completing a degree in something similar to the job they performed in the military, think again! Sixty-three percent go on to earn degrees in fields of study "not similar at all" to their military specialization. On top of that, veterans largely pursue degrees in business, STEM fields, and health professions, which are some of the most academically demanding.

What Are the Challenges Veterans Face in the College Classroom?

One of the most commonly reported challenges among student veterans is reintegration to civilian life, and specifically, social integration and developing a sense of belonging among a traditional student population.

An article by Borasari Et Al elaborates on this, specifically pointing out that traditional students' less established familial roles, less structured or disciplined lifestyles, and propensity to ask veterans intrusive or uninformed questions about their military service are among the main causes for veterans' reluctance to integrate socially.

While student veterans bring unique skills and experiences to a college campus, this difficulty to integrate often leads to downplaying their identity as a veteran in order to avoid unwelcome social interactions with their traditional peers, or in an attempt to blend in better somewhere they already feel out of place.

As a result of these social pressures, many student veterans experience a crisis of identity as they struggle to simultaneously have their experience recognized while also blending in. Often, this leads student veterans to seek out other veterans for support.

Even on campuses where [veteran] resources are present, the larger college community may fail to recognize, appreciate, and integrate the veteran experience into its campus culture. Student veterans want recognition of their abilities, but also want to blend in, and they far too often live in a world where neither is happening.

On a college campus where veterans services and organizations are not readily available, finding this support can be an immense hurdle. Even on campuses where these resources are present, the larger college community may fail to recognize, appreciate, and integrate the veteran experience into its campus culture. Student veterans want recognition of their abilities, but also want to blend in, and they far too often live in a world where neither is happening.

As mentioned above, an immense source of stress can be attributed to student veterans' disability status, which makes college even more challenging. To add to existing mental health disabilities such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, PNPI notes that up to 35% of student veterans have reported having suicidal thoughts, with between 7-8% having reported a past suicide attempt. These struggles with mental health lead to higher rates of alienation and less social support among both non-veteran and veteran peers.

For student veterans who are still serving in the military, another challenge comes with the possible disruption in education due to redeployment or relocation as part of their military service. Having to leave school temporarily for a military assignment, or having to transfer to another school for relocation, may result in incomplete course work, lost credits, and loss of scholarships. Most importantly, it also means losing already-established support systems and having to endure reintegration again.

A student at their desk looks down while taking a test in the classroom

In Their Own Words: Student Veterans at American Colleges

For the past several years, I have been an active advocate for student veterans on my campus, and currently serve as an advisor for a veteran student organization. However, I am not a veteran myself, so for the purposes of this article, it was important that I ask them to describe their difficulties in college in their own words. Not surprisingly, their answers revolved around many of the issues already covered here.

One student veteran reports that, "The hardest thing I find about attending higher education as a vet is finding a purpose and connecting with people who were not vets or not vet families. I would walk up on campus, go to class and talk to absolutely no one. … Veterans have built such strong bonds. It makes other bonds not look as special."

This same student admits that, in the classroom, he finds it difficult to express his opinion about issues to other students because many of them are younger and lack experience with "real-life issues."

One thing vets offer in the classroom is life experience. Unlike most students and some faculty who never left college life, we have seen and learned things that could be and are rarely utilized in classrooms. … [Some professors] don't care what you know or have to say.

Anonymous Student Veteran

As another veteran told me, "One thing vets offer in the classroom is life experience. Unlike most students and some faculty who never left college life, we have seen and learned things that could be and are rarely utilized in classrooms. … [Some professors] don't care what you know or have to say."

This student also reported isolation among peers: "The other issue is the lack of community. You can feel isolated in the classroom because all the young kids have so much in common to talk about and you're just the the old guy in the class."

Both of these veterans also expressed frustration with the lack of recognition of their life experiences both in the classroom and in the larger campus community, which they attribute to the lack of knowledge about the military and the current political issues and global conflicts that it is involved in.

What Can We Do to Help?

At the university level, there's a lot that can be done to help student veterans navigate and integrate into college life, including increasing awareness of veteran benefits and veteran-specific academic and health services, educating faculty and fellow students on veteran-related issues, and creating a more welcoming campus environment.

But what can individual instructors do when a student veteran is in our classroom, specifically in the realm of easing their integration and providing support? First, and most importantly, being amenable to any classroom accommodations that the student may need is key, just as it would be for any other student. They may need to use certain technologies in the classroom to take notes or keep up with a lecture, they might benefit from extra face-to-face time with you out of the classroom, and they may respond differently to certain types of classroom activities, like class discussion or collaboration.

In your classroom, you can also find a way to strike a balance between acknowledgement and assimilation with student veterans. Give them opportunities to speak openly in discussion when they are comfortable, and make sure that other students are not dismissing them. Differences of opinion will arise because of experience level, but everyone should be fairly heard.

At the university level, there's a lot that can be done to help student veterans navigate and integrate into college life, including increasing awareness of veteran benefits and veteran-specific academic and health services, educating faculty and fellow students on veteran-related issues, and creating a more welcoming campus environment.

At the same time, do not single the student out by deferring to them as an expert or by unnecessarily highlighting their military service; that should be up to them to disclose. Contrary to popular belief, many veterans do not like being constantly referred to as such, nor does it do them any favors as far as blending in with their peers.

Finally, check your own assumptions and power trips at the door. One of the most important things that I strive for in working with student veterans in my classroom and in an advisory role is to find that perfect balance between being there in a supportive role, but also not forcing my way of doing things. Veterans speak differently amongst themselves, they joke and tease and banter. These are all valid ways to express unique and shared life experiences, even if it is not what we are used to in the world of academia. It does no good to flex one's muscles to demonstrate how we do things; rather, we need to work more on allowing space in our world for the way they do things.