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Building Synergy and Possibilities

  • Written by  Dr. Nicholas J. Osborne, Dr. Catherine M. York, & Dr. Dustin D. Lange
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Supporting and Counseling Military Students

By Dr. Nicholas J. Osborne, Dr. Catherine M. York, & Dr. Dustin D. Lange

Simply getting through the first year of college is a challenge for many students. For veterans, this challenge is even more pronounced. This is because these individuals are students who have experienced a break in their education, typically having joined the military after high school and are entering college in their early to mid-20s (or older). This gap results in the students needing to refresh their “rusty” skills, often times needing remedial education and relearning competencies that support their academic success (e.g., study skills, time management). Veterans and military-connected students are also likely to encounter barriers during their transition to higher education and frequently come to college with multi-layered issues that impact their retention and degree progress (e.g., unclear career goals, anxiety, juggling work-life commitments, academic deficiencies). Furthermore, the uniqueness of military culture and a background of discipline, deployments, and accountability equip veterans with a life experience and maturity that can make it difficult for them to relate to their civilian peers or ask for help. The common challenges experienced by this group of students are further exacerbated when the veteran also has a disability.

The College of Applied Health Sciences (AHS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a storied history of serving students with disabilities. Ironically, this history began with transitioning World War II veterans and evolved into groundbreaking “firsts” that set a national standard for accessibility and disability support. Examples of innovations established at the University of Illinois include curb cuts, fixed-route buses with wheelchair lifts, college-level adapted sports and recreation programs, and the first residence hall for students with disabilities. Recognizing an influx of veteran enrollment across the country and a moderate prevalence of disabilities among many of them, AHS opened The Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education in August 2015. The approach to serving military-connected students at the Center is rooted in the belief that working with the whole person in a synergistic way will better address the multiplicity of needs of the student while capitalizing on his/her strengths. By

moving from a trauma-centric model to a “possibilities” model, services are grounded in frequent and multilayered contacts and careful coordination of services and supports.

A Model for Academic & Transitional Success

The Center’s model is adapted in part from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Health Administration’s Polytrauma System of Care, in which a number of specialized services are available with the goal of devising comprehensive and individualized plans, rather than assuming a “one-size-fits-all” model. Getting started, a needs-assessment survey was disseminated to all student veterans at our university to identify the types of services and resources that they found most helpful or that needed to be enhanced to be more effective. Additionally, semi-structured interviews and meetings with the campus’ Student Veterans Organization (SVO) provided enhanced insight into strategies for strengthening existing resources. For example, our career services developed and organized a yearlong professional mentoring program to assist veterans with career guidance and networking opportunities that will enhance their employment success upon graduation. Figure 1 below illustrates the Center’s model and four core service areas that help student veterans with their transition from military to academic life: 1) Academic Services; 2) Health Services; 3) Career Services; and 4) Veteran and Family Services. Figure 2 provides a detailed list of items that fall under each core area. These lists are not exhaustive but provide understanding of the various services that student veterans may need and should be considered by professionals working with this unique population.

Figure 2 Model Components

Academic Services Health Services Career Services Veteran & Family Services

Veterans Orientation Individual Transition Plan Career Counseling Veteran Service Organizations

Veterans Transition

Course Neuropsych Assessment Resume Writing VA Services

Academic Advising Counseling Translating Military Skills Family Support Groups

Academic Coaching Physical Therapy Mock Interviews Couples & Family Counseling

Tutoring & Writing Lab Speech Pathology Alumni Partners Childcare Services

Financial Aid Counseling Academic Accommodations Networking Campus Veterans Office

Priority Registration Disability Management Career Fairs Student Veterans Org.

Scholarships Wellness Workshops Job Search Strategies Campus Events & Activities


As cited in many academic journals about veterans in higher education, the students at the Center confront several transitional issues, including the following: 1) unrealistic expectations about college and undergraduate peers (e.g., assuming that everyone follows stated rules and instructions like in the military); 2) lacking a sense of community that they had in the military; 3) an absence of hierarchy among civilians (i.e., not feeling respected by traditional college students who are much younger); and 4) limited professional and career guidance for finding a job after college. There are also key themes that often arise for veterans in relation to transitioning to a large, public university as a non-traditional student. These themes center around difficulties interacting with traditional undergraduate students who often have limited life experiences, pursuing dating and romantic relationships, having a narrow support system in the area, and solely focusing on taking courses related to their major rather than the diverse curricula they need to fulfill various general education requirements.

The Registration Process

When registering with the Center to receive services, the student completes an application and an “orientation interview” with the clinical psychologist. The interview is designed to screen students for potential academic difficulties, impairment in social and occupational functioning, and physical and mental disorders/disabilities. The services offered to students within the Center, the campus, and the VA are then reviewed with the student, and an individualized, comprehensive plan of care is created. Each student is then provided with case management to ensure that referrals are scheduled and followed through.

Core staff meet weekly to discuss the multi-layered barriers that impact each student’s academic and life progress. One goal of the weekly meeting is to identify problems early in the semester and to subsequently insulate students with assistive resources to offset and address those issues. For instance, a student may share in therapy that he has been depressed since leaving the military and is further overwhelmed by his math classes, including difficulty concentrating on course material and budgeting his time. The clinical psychologist, in collaboration with the associate director, will refine the student’s “plan” to ensure that it encompasses weekly mental health therapy, academic coaching, tutorial support, and participation in a time management workshop.

Behavioral Health

With regard to mental health services, the Center offers individual therapy for a variety of conditions. Most commonly, students are seen for adjustment disorders (in relation to their transition), depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuropsychological assessment is also provided to determine cognitive strengths and weakness and diagnose psychological disorders. Furthermore, academic accommodations are offered to students who have a diagnosed disability that is interfering with their academic functioning. Accommodations often include extra time on exams in a distraction-reduced environment, the use of a peer note-taker, excused absences from class due to an exacerbation of symptoms, and the use of assistive technology (e.g., screen readers or speech-to-text software).

Health and wellness programs were created to aid with the transition from military to civilian life. For example, nutritional workshops are offered monthly in which students are taught how to cook nutritious, simple, and quick meals, as many of them joined the military after high school and transferred to the university with limited cooking skills. Trauma-sensitive yoga

is offered twice a month to encourage physical fitness while helping students regulate their emotional and physical sensations in a safe environment. In addition, budgeting workshops were created to help students create realistic budgets, as many of them have much smaller incomes with more expenses than they had in the military. Finally, additional workshops are offered throughout the semester to help with stress management, test anxiety, and goal setting and time management.

Veterans Affairs Partnership

One limitation of the Center is that it is located nearly one hour away from the closest VA clinic. Attending appointments at the VA requires a large time commitment that several students are unable to make, especially for ongoing services. Therefore, the Center and VA medical center created a partnership where the VA provides some specific services on site at the Center one day a week; including social work, mental health, speech pathology, and physical therapy.

Career and Employment

For most departing servicemembers, finding a job is the greatest challenge in their transition and one of the main reasons they elect to attend college. Many students we work with need assistance exploring various careers and constructing an academic plan that will make them competitive applicants. In short, they need to recognize how their academic program is a bridge toward a fulfilling career. Furthermore, they need to unpack this vision early rather than wait until their senior year. Career discussions with students begin as soon as they arrive on campus. This entails creating a working resume that they will refine over the years, networking, participating in career fairs, and connecting students with professionals in the field, such as through our professional mentoring program, which pairs students to mid-level and senior career leaders from various industries and businesses. These strategies are further supplemented by career-focused workshops that teach students how to articulate their military backgrounds to a civilian employer, accentuate the many soft skills they’ve developed through their service, and prepare them for an interview.

Recommendations and Portability

The Center is a $14M facility with a core staff of four full-time professionals and numerous student workers and interns. The third floor of the Center is also a residential wing that

houses 14 individual suites and bathrooms. These rooms are available to student veterans who desire to live within a peer community and are equipped with various assistive technologies to accommodate students with severe complex disabilities. Since opening, over 100 student veterans have registered for services at the Center and the residential floor is at max capacity. A lead gift was provided by a generous alum to fund the building and ongoing fundraising is underway to ensure that all services can be offered to students free of charge in perpetuity. Although we’re very grateful for what we’re able to provide to our students, we recognize that most colleges and universities are without the luxury of a Center of this magnitude; however, there are a number of support services that universally benefit most student veterans regardless of their circumstances. The following section provides recommend practices that can be beneficial to all student veterans.

The recommendations listed here provide guidance for initiating a course of action toward establishing or improving service provision to student veterans. The primary objective is to provide information that is both practical and useful for a wide variety of higher education institutions. The critical elements essential for creating positive impact include the establishment and sustainment of professional relationships with other campus units and the effective management and usage of resources. The following recommendations address student veterans’ needs at the individual and campus levels:

Individual Level

* Create web-based surveys and conduct focus groups to assist in determining needs for service provision. These practices should illuminate students’ transitional experiences, perception of campus climate, and identified barriers. Including students by way of surveys and focus groups is also effective for giving them buy in with regard to their input being used to strengthen and shape programming.

* Veterans are notorious for looking out for each other. Connecting new student veterans with currently enrolled student veterans is a helpful way to establish an immediate peer network. Many schools have a Student Veterans Organization (SVO) in place and chapters can be found through the Student Veterans of America ( Additionally, community-based support can be found through several Veteran Service Organizations (e.g., American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars). These groups offer effective

resources for helping new veterans acclimate to the community and they are often engaged in various philanthropic work that benefit military populations.

* Collaborate with other Registered Student Organizations. Student veterans should be encouraged to integrate into the larger campus and engage with diverse student populations. An excellent strategy for promoting integration is to empower the SVO to collaborate with other student groups.

Campus Level

* Create a veterans services website and link other student services to it. The campus homepage should also consider having a link for veterans to enhance visibility.

* Utilize social media to increase visibility of veterans’ presence on campus.

* Educate faculty and staff about military culture; ways to effectively work with student veterans, and how to brand services toward military-connected students. For instance, residential services might consider including information that explains whether or not veterans are required to live on campus or of housing options for nontraditional students.

* Collect data on veteran enrollment, retention, number of wounded veterans, and types of disabilities.

* Reach out to different college units for collaborative projects. A Veterans Advisory Committee is a helpful way to bring multiple units together to strategize development and programming for veterans.

* Consider how student veterans’ needs align to your campus’ strategic plan.

Dr. Nicholas J. Osborne is director of the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Dustin D. Lange is associate director at the Center. Dr. Catherine M. York serves as a clinical psychologist.

Additional Info

  • Issue: 12
  • Volume: 2
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