Can you tell us about your background working with veterans who are attending college?
I started working with veterans at Endicott College in 2012. We had several students who had to stop classes due to feeling suicidal. These were my brightest, funniest, and most engaged students – but they were struggling. Veterans Affairs reported in 2014 that the rate of suicide among male veterans was 37 per 100,000. This number has slowly gone up over the years. Both of my grandfathers served in the military, and they both committed suicide. With my brother and father also being veterans, I felt genuinely dedicated to making a difference. Endicott College has a long tradition of serving veterans and military students and I knew there was something more that we could do to serve our students and help support their transition to civilian life.
In 2014, Endicott College brought the Veterans Initiative Towards Academic Leadership to campus. This project coordinates VA services for Endicott College veterans – social work, academic support, and peer tutoring. In 2015, we founded a veterans club to bring more community to this group of students; they became a chapter of the Student Veterans of America in 2016. We also began a VA work study in 2016 as a way to integrate more opportunities for our veteran students to earn money while being full-time students. Additionally, this will be the second year we run a 3 credit class that helps military students translate their military leadership skills to the academic setting.
Dr. Wylie, the President of Endicott College, was serving veterans long before I got to the college. This tradition of serving military and veteran students is shown through Professor at Sea programs, classes at the Coast Guard stations in SW Harbor and Boston's North end, as well as regular classes at the Military Education Processing Station (MEPS) building in Boston. I've been honored to continue these programs through the Van Loan School at Endicott, and to build on them by adding additional academic support.
A big part of our continued success is our partner, Kristine Babcock at North Shore Community College. Every year she spends at least an hour with me, letting us know where our school can go next to serve veterans. Additionally, we are active members in the North Shore Veterans Collaborative, a local group dedicated to serving military families in the area. I'm alert to ideas and concerns that we hear at these meetings and I'm ready to implement as many good ideas as possible.
What are the three most important attributes a veteran should consider when selecting an undergraduate university experience and why?
1. Academic Programming. The school needs to have relevant academic programs that align with student interests. The degree options need to match the student's area of interest and propel them towards careers that will make life meaningful. Understanding how the academic program supports your career goals is significant. If students would benefit from a supported transition into a civilian career, they should choose a school like Endicott that provides life-long career support, help with resume writing, and has a veterans networking event at the annual career fair. Students should think about whether they want a school that is large, or whether they would thrive in a small program like Endicott College/Van Loan School where they receive personal attention, tutoring, and support.
Veterans should chose a program where they feel comfortable stating any concerns they may have; where they will be challenged, but also supported.
2. Advising and Support. There are a lot of issues that come up for veteran students in college. One of my students shared, “I just got back from five years in Afghanistan and you wanted me to write a 5-page paper. After finishing my senior thesis, 150 pages, I realize that's not much – but at the time I needed the Writing Center and professor encouragement to even approach that first paper.” Faculty support is central for every student completing their degree.
Veterans should ask, will my Joint Service Transcripts be accepted as credits? Is there peer mentoring or a veterans club on campus? If they are active duty military students, it is important that they not be penalized for being called to active duty; who can help them process these claims? It's easier if the school has a one-stop-shop advisor or veterans center who can help the student access all the things they need including withdrawing from a class, speaking up to a professor, or postponing their degree due to active military service.
3. Ability for the school to process Tuition Assistance and GI Benefits. Veterans are often using Post 9-11 GI Benefits, and this includes a housing stipend. The school they choose needs to be efficient at processing these benefits. If the benefits aren't processed, the student could lose housing dollars and that is extremely stressful. Everyone wants the money they are depending on to be predictable. They should call the certifying official at the school and make sure they are accessible and pleasant to work with.
How important is a university's sense of community for veterans when deciding on a college?
A sense of community is essential for all students, but particularly for veteran students. The military is a tight group of mission-driven individuals who are committed to seeing projects through together. We've had students who literally order books for the entire class so they can get good rates for everyone or pick up a student who is having a hard time getting to class. Community matters to these individuals, many of whom are natural leaders and exceptionally service driven. Figuring out how one can contribute to a school is central to these students finding a sense of place.
Combat veterans may need an opportunity to connect with other combat veterans. In a school environment, they are in class with civilians, non-combat veterans, and active military; this can be extremely stressful to combat veterans. Combat veterans are used to following orders and not speaking their minds freely – ideas from their peers that are wrong, incomplete, or still forming can be extremely triggering because in combat zones, wrong information leads to death. In higher education, exploration of ideas is encouraged and mistakes are rarely that costly. Being able to speak to each other, their advisor, and faculty about their issues is central to continuing their education.
In 2016, Dr. Wylie and the ROTC of Endicott College commemorated a permanent tribute to those who serve with a sculpture that overlooks the ponds of Endicott. The five military branches and first responders are each represented. Permanent memorials like this send a message to veterans and military students that they are appreciated; we are aware that the privilege of learning rests on the sacrifices they and their families make.
How have you seen the GI Bill influence a veteran or service member's higher education decisions?
The GI Bill is a huge factor in many students being able to attend school. It can determine how many years of schooling they have, their housing allowance, and whether they have to work full-time while they're in school. For veterans without a civilian career lined up, they may go to school because it is the most affordable solution for them. In these instances, it is central to inspire students to understand why they are in school, and how to thrive in an educational environment.
Endicott College has a reduced rate for active military students who receive Tuition Assistance through their branch of service. This means that while they are in the service they don't have to pay for tuition. We've been working with the National Guard and Coast Guard to get students enrolled in programs as enlisted soldiers. If they follow this advice, not only do they advance in rank within their service, but they can transfer their GI Benefits to their partner, or children - that's a huge benefit!
We've seen many students use Voc Rehab benefits to complete graduate education as well. This benefit pays for books, computers, and other things individuals need to meet their career goals. Students need to work with the VA to come up with a solid career plan that is approved for full funding. Endicott students have the added advantage of working with our robust Career Center. The Dean, Eric Hall, has organized trainings throughout the year that can help students make the career connections they need to succeed.
What advice would you give students who don't believe they can attend college as a veteran?
Students who are uncertain should try to aim for a small school where they will get specialized attention. We have classes at the MEPS building in downtown Boston for veteran students, which allows students an opportunity to see if they are a good fit for college, with the safety of being in class with other veterans. They can speak freely, and develop a strong sense of community that enables them to succeed. This building also has security, so for students returning from combat, these classes can help them focus on learning.
Veteran and military students are strong, resilient leaders who bring real world experience to the classroom. I've been in International Conflicts classes where every single student had been to either Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somalia. This makes for extremely interesting and robust conversations. The single biggest mistake students make in returning to college is thinking they can go it alone. Ask for an extension from your faculty, ask for help understanding a problem, and speak up when you feel a peer is off base. The college experience is about sharing the whole of who you are -- find a community where who you are as a person is encouraged and uplifted.
Another myth is that those who felt called to serve did so because they were not naturally good students. We just haven't seen this. These students are disciplined leaders who truly desire to transition back into civilian life. The change from soldier to civilian is not an easy one because the cultural anchors are all different. College can be the place where self-exploration happens so these veterans can truly understand the complex gifts they have to offer.
What advice would you give to a student who is a veteran and considering attending college and is in the first stages of the college search?
Call an academic advisor from an accredited, non-profit school. Our advisors will help you find a match that is right for you. If we aren't a good fit, maybe U Mass Lowell is. Good schools are dedicated to education and to helping each student succeed, no matter where they decide to go to school.
Before you meet with your advisor, think about what is most important to you. College is a time for self-exploration. Some veterans think they need to know exactly what they want to do, but it's natural to change course in an undergraduate degree. The more classes you take, the more you realize what is satisfying to you. This will direct your choice of classes, degree, and career pursuits.
What are some common difficulties Veterans face as they enter college? What are some tactics you've seen help them overcome these problems?
Veteran students really dislike being looked at as in need of support. We recently ran a student lecture series that we called “Student Support Nights” and the President of the Veterans Club, Jason Donovan, immediately renamed them “Student Leadership Circles.” This signifies one of the biggest challenges for veteran students – finding ways they can truly lead the educational communities that they are a part of. They aren't satisfied being consumers of services; they want to change the communities they are a part of.
Combat veterans sometimes really struggle with some of the actions they have had to take to survive. We have a veteran's representative, Jeff DaSilva, who is a VA employee and combat veteran – he has given a talk to faculty at the Van Loan School as a way to clarify challenges that combat veterans face. This has gone a long way in making the entire school military-friendly.
Active military students have a different burden – being called back into service. We recently had a student sign up for a full semester of classes, who was called to help the hurricane victims in Texas. She got back in time for fall classes, but was then called down to Florida. It helps that Endicott's policy does not penalize students for dropping classes due to military service. It also helps that we have accelerated classes, as this student was able to start classes in our second session of the fall. In other schools, she would have missed an entire semester of classes.
What are ways a college should support students who are veterans? Where can students go for help if an issue does arise?
We have a peer tutor who is available to all students in case they experience mental health challenges, physical illness, or economic issues. The peer tutor can connect them with services to make sure their needs are met. We also provide the local ESO's number, Dave Perinchief. David is an excellent local resource that often knows of grants and other services that may benefit veterans and their families. If there are issues with housing benefits our certifying official, Susan Abate can help. The great thing about Endicott College is that every administrator and faculty member is ready to serve student needs. We are small, and truly care that each concern is addressed.
A dream of our veterans club is to find funding for a veteran's center. This would be a one stop shop so that students could have one contact that would help them navigate the college experience. If there is anyone out there who would like to meet with our club and help with funding, they would be very appreciative.
What are tools you see veterans using to succeed once they get to college?
Writing Center Our veteran students like the writing center. The writing center will connect with students from anywhere in the world. If they are deployed in Iraq, they can still set up a time to get support from the writing center tutors.
Library Research Support I tell every class that I teach to reach out to the library – librarians love to get research questions and to help students. When students finally do reach out to the library (available in person, on the phone, or through email), they are shocked at how true this is. Students always say, “I thought you were kidding! But they really do love answering research questions.” I had a Coast Guard student who was working all day on base and worked in the evening on his school projects. He said his wife was mad that he was having such a good time talking to someone at 11PM; he had to convince her it really was the librarian. Helping students become lifelong learners is a passion of mine; and it happens by connecting them with a community that is dedicated to learning.
Veterans Club The veterans club is a great way to connect with other students. They are a dedicated group of students who really want to support one another. I keep encouraging them to just go to the beach, hang out, have some fun – but that's more difficult for this service-oriented group of students.
Any last thoughts?
Research shows that veterans have the most difficulty of any minority group in completing an undergraduate degree. The challenge I've seen is that students don't see how a degree is going to help them and honestly, they may need help in leveraging a college education for maximum impact. Some of these students are first generation college students, balancing family with work and school, and dealing with PTSD or TBI.
Veterans are leaders and caretakers; they are incredibly used to giving to others. Veteran students need to learn how to receive as much as they give; this balance is important for them or they will burn out. Veterans can be so mission driven that they forget to have fun. I'm not kidding! The veterans club wants to do fundraisers, support others – but rarely think to just get together for dinner and a game of pool. This sounds like it would be easy to convince people to do, but it's simply not. Take time to enjoy your life, or bring your whole family to campus for an event or lecture. Other undergraduates may need reminders to get to class, to volunteer, but veterans need reminders to enjoy themselves -- get to one of the three private beaches at Endicott! Find a school that is going to care about you – and let yourself be cared about.
Dr. Laura DouglassDean of Professional Studies at Endicott College
Dr. Laura Douglass is the Dean of Professional Studies at Endicott College's Van Loan School, where she also serves as the faculty advisor for the Veteran's Club. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with research interests in trauma, eating disorders, and the integration of yoga as pedagogy in higher education settings. Her interest in serving non-traditional students has resulted in a robust bachelor degree completion program that is well suited to veterans and active duty military. She received a bachelor of arts in anthropology and fine arts from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in interdisciplinary educational studies from Lesley University. Her publications can be found in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, Journal of Online Education, and Religion & Education, among others. She currently serves on the board of the Beverly Children's Learning Center and is a peer reviewer for the academic journal Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention.