Serving Those Who Served

Photograph of Army Veteran Ed Stokes and Marine Veteran Student Jeremiah Flores
Army Veteran Ed Stokes and Marine Veteran Student Jeremiah Flores. | Photo by Justin Randles.

Veterans represent a small but significant part of the student body on campus. Total veteran enrollment on Henry Ford campus is around three hundred students. With more veterans expected to attend college in the coming years what kind of attention does the veteran body warrant from the school?

A 2016 study by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC) found approximately 40 percent of student veterans attend community college. There is a lot more to being a student veteran than just handshakes and ceremonies though.

Student veterans are unlike other demographics at any college. Far from a monolithic group, veterans vary in gender, race, ethnicity, age, service branch, and type of military service. Many student veterans have faced deployment in combat zones, sometimes multiple deployments.

Veterans of combat have sometimes lost close friends to violent ends, including suicide. According to the latest figures released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of twenty-two veterans commit suicide daily.

Veterans of combat have lived in unusual conditions for a year or more at a time. They slept on fabric cots night after night with their weapon either in bed with them or within arms reach, they eat meal after meal from a bag with only a few different options, they have very limited access to telephone and internet to contact loved ones, and they miss important events like holidays, a child’s birth, relatives’ funerals, and daily activities like watching television, all while experiencing the constant threat of being shot at or blown up.

Veterans face a variety of challenges on their way to completion of an educational program. Forty-four percent of student veterans report four or more risk factors, such as part-time enrollment, working full-time while enrolled, and supporting family. Veterans also face more complex issues on the road to a degree like difficulty transitioning from military life to the civilian sector, and physical and mental health issues resulting from their military experience.

The CCRC reviewed community college programs at five different schools across the country and four out of five of those colleges suggest that veterans are less academically prepared and need more support than the general student population. All the schools identified a slew of non-academic hurdles for veteran students to jump, including mental health issues, limited finances, housing instability and family problems.

Veteran students struggle to find a job and have trouble connecting the skills they learned in the military to equivalent and relevant civilian job skills. This is especially true for student veterans from combat and combat support jobs like infantry, artillery, air defense, armor, and cavalry. These fields are very difficult to transcribe into the civilian job market.

Though veteran students may struggle more academically than the general student population, they also have high levels of grit, discipline, determination and motivation. Veteran students are often described as mature, persistent, driven, adaptive, strong leaders, and good team players. These attributes, if leveraged correctly, may be valuable in adding diversity and experience to the classroom and lecture discussions.

“Student veterans in my classes tend to bring an honest perspective to the realities of military life to students who wouldn’t otherwise get to hear that side,” said Susan McGraw, academic coordinator for Telecommunications Media and Journalism, “My student veterans typically provide a perspective of groundedness, humility, and the attitude of not taking things for granted in life.”

The five schools that the CCRC researched provide four types of support services for veterans. These four types of services are benefits-focused, academic, non-academic, and career.

Ninety-four percent of public two-year colleges have a designated point of contact for military-connected students. At most two-year colleges, it is a single person handling the entire veteran student body and these employees are heavily benefit-focused.

Of course, with $10.2 billion a year in GI Bill benefits coming to colleges and universities around the country, there is a lot of money to be collected and having a resource person dedicated to student veterans makes perfect fiscal sense. However, the student-veterans that bring in that guaranteed money to colleges seldom leave with their degree.

Henry Ford College Veteran Affairs certifying official, Gail Bock states, “I work with the students who are first coming in and we want to work with them to get them started, help them to determine what they might be eligible for and apply for the benefits and then certify them so that they get their educational benefits.”

Bock tries to address the uncertainty for veteran students. When students first come to Bock, they are given an easy-to-follow checklist to navigate the murky and confusing waters of certifying for benefits. Not only does she help veteran students certify their benefits, she is also their point of contact to many other sections of the enrollment process such as advising, financial aid, career counseling, and she even offers an ear to listen.

HFC also offers non-academic support in way of a relatively robust counseling center. The counseling office offers six to eight counseling sessions to veteran students as well as the general student population.

“I myself am trained in crisis intervention and trauma,” says Ibrahim Atallah, Henry Ford College Dean of Counseling and a licensed professional counselor, “Mr. Mori is also a counselor here and he specializes in stress management. A lot of that is also based on trauma and PTSD. Dr. Eldritch, who comes from a psychology background and she has tremendous experience working with people that have difficult life situations including homelessness; veterans struggle with a lot of these issues.”

Another element of support that the CCRC identified are veteran lounges. A veteran lounge is a small room that allows veterans to do homework, take breaks, watch television, and socialize with other like-minded individuals that can relate to the unusual life experiences that veterans have.

The National Student Clearinghouse reports colleges and universities that have provided a veteran lounge for students boasts nearly double the graduation rate from the national average of 23 percent. Henry Ford College does not have a student veteran lounge.

“Last year we put in the operational plan that we would like to have a student veterans lounge,” Bob James, Student Veterans of America advisor, said. “Gail (Bock) and I went to surrounding colleges to see how they did it and then we formulated what we thought that we would need, and we put it in the operational plan and you know get the money to do it. It’s always a tough thing. We now have a V.P. of student services that came to us and said this is fabulous. Let’s do this.”

Other local community colleges like Washtenaw Community College and Schoolcraft College already have veteran lounges.

However, the prospect of a veteran center or lounge is stifled by space. James indicates that finding room on campus is difficult. Recently, the campus’s quiet reflection room, a room on campus where students can go to pray or meditate got an upgrade to a much larger and brighter room. The room is primarily used for prayer. Not only was there space to move the room but the previous space could possibly still be empty.

James further said that if the Student Veterans of America (SVA) had more active members that it would help the case of getting the college to provide the essential space for veteran students.

In recent campus surveys, twenty to thirty students have suggested that the interest is there for on-campus programming for student veterans. A student veteran lounge could be exactly what is needed.

Jeremiah Flores, a Marine student-veteran said, “I would love a place where I could be surrounded by people with intestinal fortitude and drive. A quiet place, if need be.” Flores studies in the library, but said, “The library is my favorite place to study and even though it is a library, it can become a “loudbrary” really, really quick.”

Not everyone at a college campus is aware of how to interact with veteran students, and that includes faculty and staff. The Community College Research Center (CCRC) found that less than one-third of community colleges provide faculty and staff with training on veteran needs and potential ways to communicate with veterans.

Henry Ford College recently provided faculty and staff with Kognito training about military cultural competency and how to create an environment supportive of student veterans. The training runs through simulations of real-world interactions with veterans on campus and what to do or not to do.

The training was voluntary and of the faculty and staff, roughly 1300 employees, including close to 250 faculty members, participated in the thirty-minute training. “We recognize the fact that we want to continue to do more training,” said Gail Bock, “So we are talking about avenues to do that.”

Moreover, Ibrahim Atallah says, “We are moving more and more in that direction where the counseling division would be providing training to faculty on how to respond to veterans and other individuals with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the best approaches to help them. So far, we offer seminars in stress management, substance abuse, depression, anxiety and other challenges students face.”

Student veterans are an important resource to any college; they are essential in providing experience to the campus and classroom discussions, they have outstanding leadership qualities, and, of course, the promise of part of the $10.2 billion in GI benefits that on average go to American colleges each year.

Henry Ford College and the veteran specific staff cares about veterans; that is definite. From veteran specific training and talk of creating a veteran lounge, the College has shown a commitment to providing a veteran-friendly campus. However, it remains to be seen how much further the College will invest in helping veterans attain their academic goals.

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