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Re-Thinking Orientation for Veteran Students on our Campuses

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Over the next several years, 1.4 million service members will be transitioning from military life to civilian life, with many entering our institutions of higher learning. Indeed, the newly revised Transition Assistance Program (TAP), implemented in November 2012 as a mandatory course for exiting soldiers, is designed to encourage veterans to continue their education - whether in certificate, diploma or degree programs.

As we see these new students enrolling at our campuses, we need to pause and reflect on how to help them more successfully "crosswalk" from war to work, from military life to a residential campus. Past practices have not been hugely successful, and many veterans using post-9/11 GI Bill monies do not complete their academic programs post-discharge. Unemployment and homelessness rates for veterans are higher than that of others, despite the remarkable skills these men and women learn and develop through service to our nation.

As academics and trustees, we are in a unique position to help turn these statistics around.

To find better ways to foster veteran success on our campuses, I suggest beginning with a focus on the first five hours veterans are on campus - whether literally there or participating virtually. What we do in these few hours can set the tone for the semester and provide the pathway to academic success.

Some institutions have revamped orientation for our newest veterans, in some cases offering a separate program. But, on most campuses, mine included, we have not done anything unique for these students --- until now. My experiences working with service members in Washington, D.C. and across the nation suggest the need to revamp how we orient students who have been at war, who have lived in uniform, who have followed extensive and different rules and have not always had quality previous educational experiences - whether in high school or college.

On most campuses, whenever orientation occurs, new students arrive and are directed to a line where they are handed a packet of paperwork to complete. Then, they are brought into a large room to hear words of welcome from the president, provost and/or dean. This is followed by a battery of assessment tests to determine appropriate class placement.

For veterans, this approach is problematic. Long lines, closed in spaces, new faces, the absence of comrades and uncomfortable questions often draw veterans back to their battle experiences. We ask them to complete placement tests on which they know they will not do well; many new veterans have not read or written or done traditional math for years, and may of them were not too keen on academics before they entered the service. And, we introduce our veterans to campus leaders, often with titles that make no sense to them - provost, registrar, bursar; yet, we ignore their titles.

Here are some changes to consider:

For starters, making the experience less foreign is key. We should have already enrolled veteran students or veteran alums present to serve as greeters and possible mentors, perhaps in uniform. It is wise to have flags flying - a U.S. flag, service flags for each branch and school and academic flags

Next, veterans have worked hard for their rank. We should consider using the veteran's military title on information packets - Sergeant Smith, Ensign Jones - or at least Mr. or Ms. if you don't have the last rank. Presidents and trustees greeting these new students should not say, "John, I am Trustee Smith." Or "Jane, I am President Gross." Instead, we should address them, until they tell us otherwise, using their rank: "Sergeant Jones, Welcome to Campus. I am President Gross." Or, "I am Karen Gross, President of the College; share how you want to be addressed."

The placement tests we offer straight away could feel threatening to veterans who may sense that they will show failure from the get-go. What if we developed instruments that allowed veterans to share and showcase the skills they developed in the military and begin with an exercise that puts a positive light what they have learned at war? Why not go further? Quite possibly these veteran students could complete these needed assessments online before they arrive on campus.

And, we might consider an increased role for campus safety - identifying how safe it is on a campus and in the classroom. It also helps veterans to see officers on campus in uniforms.

Getting an ID card very early on - with one's name and title - seems like a good idea. Perhaps that is the first thing new veterans should do - get an ID with their photo and a lanyard. This would be a familiar exercise to them. Better yet, we send it to them before they actually arrive for orientation.

I am sure there are other possibilities but the point is this: Re-thinking the first few hours of orientation seems like the least we can do to welcome new veterans effectively to our campuses. And, some of what is effective welcoming these remarkable men and women may help us welcome other students more effectively. After all, whatever we can do to enable students' success is a worthy effort.