By Julia Quanrud
As college and university administrators rush to keep up with estimated 2 million individuals cashing in on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, have we overlooked what role civic engagement practitioners can play in welcoming veterans to campus? We’re familiar with the benefits of civic engagement in academia, but engaging student veterans may result in both unique challenges and benefits.
For example, after 9/11, over 1.6 million veterans have served in combat, which means that many veterans coming to campus this fall may find themselves dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress. The Student Veterans Association suggests that civic engagement, especially volunteering, helps veterans deal with stress by engaging them with their peers and communities. By helping veterans feel connected and supported by their community, practitioners equip veterans with valuable tools that help them stay healthy and in school.
The benefits of engaging the student-soldier extend both ways though, and practitioners may find student veterans more willing or able to serve than their peers. For instance, researchers have found that “military service is associated with more active forms of political participation,” including voting, campaign work, and contacting political officials. Historically GI Bill recipients have also felt a stronger call to be active citizens because the bill offered “a highly positive experience of government and public provision, one that provided them with access to education and treated them with dignity and respect in the process.”
Military experience also enables individuals to volunteer because the military devalues “social status variables, such as age, race, and gender”, leveling the playing field for participation. A military experience “provides a venue for developing the skills and acquiring the resources necessary for volunteering, especially for people from lower socioeconomic classes.” Veterans may also value volunteering more highly than their peers because the military seeks “to cultivate an environment where members are subject to military authority and subscribe to military goals and values, which center on loyalty and duty to country.” After returning to civilian life, veterans often express military values like loyalty through civic engagement.
Student veterans also have highly valuable skills that make them an asset to the community. For example, most veterans worked together with people from multiple “racial, geographic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds.” Their experience may have also provided them with leadership opportunities, especially in times of combat when leadership may be spontaneous. And for student veterans who might not have been able to afford college if not for the post-9/11 GI Bill, research has found that they tend to feel a “sharper sense of civic duty, feeling that they owed something back to American society.”
So how can civic engagement practitioners reach their campus’ veterans? The American Council on Education recommends increasing access to information, recognizing the value of military experience and training, and providing programs that help veterans transition to civilian and academic life are important factors in retaining veterans and ensuring success. The most valuable forms of outreach included taking the time to reach out to veterans through the Internet, through support networks and student groups, through opportunities to connect with the community, and through personal interaction. Engagement, according to the American Council on Education, is absolutely critical in helping veterans succeed on campus, especially during the first semester when the dropout rate is highest. According to one veteran interviewed by the Council, “What veteran-friendly colleges don’t do is coddle veterans. Instead, they create environments in which vets have the tools to engage in debate and make use of resources.”