10/29/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

Embracing Military Culture in Higher Education

Co-authored by Jose Coll, Ph.D., Director of Veteran Student Services and Associate Professor of Social Work at Saint Leo University

After more than a decade at war, the forthcoming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean the return of thousands of American troops to their families and communities.

The past several years they have been asked to put their personal and professional lives on hold in order to serve their country. Some may ask themselves, "What now?"

Too often, they are left to find the answer to this question on their own. Those who decide to use the tuition assistance provided to them through the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill can still struggle through college without the proper support.

Many colleges and universities call themselves "veteran-friendly." Although being friendly is a noble virtue, it often falls short of the measures that can actually lead to a vet's success after graduation.

For more than 40 years, Saint Leo University has been serving active-duty members of the military, reservists, veterans and their families. In 1973, classes were first offered to military students at the Avon Park Bombing Range in Highlands Park, Fla. Later that year, classes expanded to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

It is unusual and significant that this outreach was made at the height of one of America's most unpopular wars. After all, colleges and universities across the country became a hotbed for political unrest in response to our country's military involvement in Vietnam.

But the same scenario rings true today as it did then. Regardless of your personal views, our soldiers are not to blame. They have been given orders and are asked to execute them to the best of their ability.

This fact is not lost on our campus. We have a major celebration every Veterans Day to honor the service of all our veterans.

At the center of campus is a place dedicated to our veteran and military students and graduates, showing they have a place of honor, right at the center of our community. It symbolizes how we would be incomplete without them.

Every day, our students, faculty, and staff walk past this place that serves as a constant reminder of the service too often taken for granted.

Do I think a veteran is better served by an institution that understands the military culture, the chain of command, and the values of honor, loyalty, and integrity? Absolutely.

They will no doubt be more comfortable in an environment that closely matches their background, and is less likely to create friction in their academic pursuits.

Today, Saint Leo has education centers at military installations in seven states across the country, and also provides classes around the world through its Center for Online Learning. But it's not enough to be friendly and provide access to programs, without also providing critical support to military members transitioning to become students.

Veterans are substantially different than their traditional student counterparts. They may share a classroom, but their life experiences and perspectives rarely compare.

Veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard have very little tolerance for improper behavior and strive to conduct themselves according to uncompromising ethics. Veterans may have a tendency to clash with the irresponsible or indifferent students who may renege on commitments or complain about course workload.

It is frustrating to see student peers act this way when veterans have experienced conflict and adversity that make such gripes seem trivial. It can also be difficult to study calculus or classic literature after years outside of a classroom.

My interaction with our military students impresses me daily. Many juggle a full-time job with raising a family and then decide that the few hours of spare time left over would be best spent taking classes to further their education.

When I ask them, "Why did you choose Saint Leo?" they acknowledge the long-standing history of serving active-duty military and veterans. Moreover, they often ask in return, "Where else can I go that honors my service to the extent that Saint Leo does?"

Due to the extensive presence of military and veteran students and their families, we really have become an extended family. With the support of their blood family and their Saint Leo family, students have a great opportunity to succeed with us.

It is always nice to be able to say you are "veteran friendly." Personally, I would much rather be able to say "veteran supportive."

In an upcoming post, I will illustrate several of the steps we took to reach this point, in the hopes that peer institutions will likewise pursue a trusted relationship with veteran students.