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Veterans-only classes both expanding and closing

Veterans Only
January 4, 2012

At a 2009 national conference of student affairs professionals, Michelle D. Cyrus, assistant director of the Center for Student Empowerment at Central Washington University, asked why the agenda didn’t include any sessions on student veterans. Nobody could give her a good answer.

Cyrus looks back on that moment as a measure of how much programming for student veterans has expanded over the past few years. In particular, classes designed exclusively for veterans have reached many campuses since they first emerged a few years ago.

But while some colleges are still jumping on board with the idea, others have had varying levels of success – and a few of the programs haven’t survived.

“It’s really sporadic in the institutions that are doing it. And we know in light of fiscal cuts, institutions are being a lot more conservative with the different classes that they’re creating, that they’re making, and when they’re doing cutbacks they’re looking at classes that they don’t see as productive. And sometimes that crosses into [classes serving nontraditional students],” Cyrus said. Many programs have also had trouble filling seats in the classes, making them an even more likely target for cuts. “I’m a proponent of, 'If you build it, they will eventually come.' But when you’re talking people power and dollars, it gets to be quite challenging.”

At Cleveland State University, for instance, where the model for many institutions’ veterans-only classes developed, the courses have been done away with (that structure, called Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran, is still in place at a handful of others, including the University of Arizona and Youngstown State University). The classes were also discontinued at Ohio State University. Though officials decline to say why, staff at other campuses point to issues with logistics and demand.

But that’s not stopping some colleges from starting new programs. John H. Creighton, a professor of speech at Valencia College in Orlando, just wrapped up his first semester teaching a veterans-only speech class. A veteran himself, Creighton was inspired to start the class after a student who had been in the military for 11 years and deployed to Iraq three times spoke in front of his non-veteran peers about his experience being on patrol.

As he spoke, the student’s entire demeanor changed. You could see it in his eyes, Creighton said – he was back in Iraq. Yet none of his classmates seemed to notice.

In the 11-person class of veterans, the students can speak freely, and while they generally don’t go into great detail about their experiences in the field, they know that everybody’s on the same page. “In this class, because they are bonded by their camaraderie of being a veteran, they look at things differently,” Creighton said. “College was new to a lot of them, and this gave them a place where they could feel comfortable in a new environment and network.”

Creighton will teach the class again in the spring, and four students are registered so far. But it’s too early to tell whether it can draw enough students to be sustainable. Many of these classes have focused on areas where students draw from their experiences for the work, such as composition or speech, but they're less common elsewhere -- it'd be hard to find, say, an all-veterans calculus class.

As demonstrated by the successes and failures of various attempts to maintain such classes, it’s a delicate balance. While Creighton must draw sufficient interest to keep the course alive at his community college, other institutions have had to eliminate classes because there was too much demand.

In the case of one large public university, which offered veterans-only classes for students’ first two semesters, the system actually stopped working as interest grew. It was a matter of logistics: a model based on one-on-one interactions and exceptionally small class sizes (which have to fit into everyone’s schedules) can only reach so many people. Once it became clear that the vets-only model wasn’t working, the university’s veterans’ affairs coordinator shifted gears, placing small cohorts of veterans within larger classes. To this coordinator, it’s even a preferable solution to the exclusively veteran courses: in cohorts, the veterans still have built-in study groups, and they’re there to provide support when a peer is having trouble stemming from his or her experience.

“What we do want is to ensure success for the veterans,” said the coordinator, who asked not to be identified because of sensitivity surrounding the topic. And, as most veterans are generally older, more focused and driven than their traditional-student counterparts, the coordinator said, “They’re much, much more likely to be successful as a group.”

The coordinator wants to work back toward all-vet classes in time, but to work, that will require investment in other supports for a “multifaceted approach.” That would mainly revolve around training to ensure faculty and staff members understand what it’s like to be a veteran and, by extension, why the classes are necessary. So for now, the focus remains on the cohorts.

Peer and institutional support is even more important for veteran students than others, a study released in November found. Since August 2009, more than 500,000 students have attended college with financial benefits provided through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and at large public universities with “solid” student veteran support systems, the study found, they are significantly more likely than non-veterans to make it from freshman to sophomore year (94 to 75 percent, respectively). 

As veterans flocked to campuses, veteran centers and associations formed with increasing frequency, as did conversations about how best to help these students – who have been found more likely to consider suicide than their non-veteran peers – succeed. Even though they’re growing in numbers, veteran-only classes remain one of the less-used tools.

Given the issues, some of the key stakeholders, even those who have taken all- and majority-veteran classes, question whether veterans-only courses are the best way to use these programs’ already limited resources. Brian Hawthorne, a member of the Board of Directors of the Student Veterans of America and graduate student at George Washington University, wonders if the time and money would be better spent on services that aren’t restricted to a small number of beneficiaries – things like veteran student centers, or faculty training on veterans’ issues.

“Then you can help all the veterans on your campus, and not just the 10 or 15 student veterans that are interested in taking the same class at the same time,” Hawthorne said. “I definitely understand the value of it, I just think that usually it’s challenging logistically, and it won’t get as much a bang for the buck.”

Hawthorne, who has taken classes composed of mostly but not solely of veterans, also worries that to separate those students from the rest could have unintended negative consequences, among the most troublesome the reinforcement of reclusive-veteran stereotypes. And based on what he’s heard from institutions looking to start up similar classes, he’s not alone.

He acknowledged that such a model could be useful on a campus with a small student veteran population -- where there’s demand, where it’s profitable and provides the safe space veterans want to learn, collaborate and work through transition issues. But, he added, “The opposite argument, which is the one that I think is prevailing at most schools, is that isolating veterans from the rest of the population is not necessarily positive,” he said. “Veterans are having trouble transitioning to civilian life, so I think the worst thing we could do is continue to isolate them from that immersion and that process.”

At Collin College, in Texas, the classes have become mixed partly out of desire and partly from necessity. Meredith Martin, a history professor who started veterans-only core courses in spring 2010, doesn’t consider the classes particularly isolating – she sees them simply as serving another special population, such as honors students. But she did believe that opening up available seats to non-veterans helps the veterans integrate on community college campuses – and vice versa.

“For 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds … in this mochachino, fast-paced, iPhone, instant information kind of world, it’s good for them to stop and realize that we have individuals who served, and that we’re still at war,” Martin said. “It gives a very different global experience.”

Those benefits might never have come to pass had there been more initial demand for the classes – Martin had to make seats available to regular students to meet a district enrollment quota. But it’s helped the classes grow from 15 to 24 students, with about a 60/40 split between veteran and civilian students.

Other colleges are developing the courses for subgroups of veterans, or those who might need them most. At Eastern Kentucky University, veterans who need to brush up on their basic skills can take core classes with others who struggle from “college rustiness,” as Associate Director of Veterans Affairs Brett Morris calls it. A cohort takes English, math and a “transition to college” course, the latter of which is taught by veterans, for veterans. Last year, the program’s first, 22 of Eastern Kentucky’s 150 student veterans enrolled in and finished the “Veterans Bridge to College Success” program, and all but three returned for their second year. Not as many enrolled this year, though; 14 veterans took the fall class and 13 are registered for spring.

“Really all they need is that transition year, that first year,” Morris said. He, too, would like to expand to all veterans the option of taking classes designed with them in mind, but he’s well aware that the difference between a 25-person cohort group and a 150-person one is not small.

After the 2009 conference, Cyrus created the Veterans Knowledge Community of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. The network provides a resource for colleges nationwide that, three years ago, might not have known where to turn when looking to start a class.

While Cyrus still couldn’t estimate how many have taken the vets-only classes route, she believes more are starting than ending the courses. And as more veterans return to college with help from their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, these types of classes will only become more common, she said. (Cyrus also attributes that legislation for the demand and emergence of these classes in the first place.)

“I think we’re going to see an increase, I really do. There’s no way that we can’t,” Cyrus said. “We have to address those issues.”

 

 

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