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CAEL Pathways Blog

Helping Student Veterans Overcome Obstacles Without Overlooking Their Strengths

Drs. Kay Yoon and Katie Sullivan are professors in the department of communication at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs (UCCS). About 20 percent of UCCS students are military affiliated, and the university prides itself on its military-friendly designation. So it's not surprising that Yoon and Sullivan, who both joined the college in 2017, heard from a panel of student veterans during the new-faculty orientation they completed together.

The student veterans left quite an impression. Many were working on advanced degrees while also starting entrepreneurial projects. They had high GPAs, were involved in their community, and reflected a strong spirit of service.

But Yoon and Sullivan couldn't help noticing an irony. Despite the students' many accomplishments, much of the conversation was on the challenges student veterans often face. Their curiosity piqued, the professors resolved to investigate the literature around student veterans.

Within it, they found a recurring context they describe as deficit framing. It is characterized by a well-intentioned but perhaps hyper-focused emphasis on how veteran students may suffer from physical or emotional harm because of their service and how universities might manage student veteran challenges.

Yoon and Sullivan concur that this mindfulness is critical to supporting the success of veteran students. But their experience with the student veteran panel and their follow-up inquiries inspired them to undertake a research project. Through it, they hoped to pivot the perspective on student veterans away from deficit framing toward a more balanced approach that emphasized their strengths. The result was their September 2020 project 'Student Veterans' Strengths: Exploring Student Veterans' Perceptions of Their Strengths and How to Harness Them in Higher Education[1],' which they discussed last month during a CAEL webinar.

As they delved deeper into the available literature, they identified two primary threads. Each reinforces the deficit model in which veterans are framed as a vulnerable student population confronted by many challenges and in need of much support.

The first thread deals with the challenges themselves. Health issues like PTSD, brain injury, depression, and anxiety are often cited as barriers to academic success. It also focuses on the struggle some veteran students have when transitioning back to civilian life and relating to faculty, staff, and non-veteran peers.

The second thread focuses on how postsecondary institutions might mitigate these issues. Solutions include a veteran-friendly culture, robust student services, faculty and staff training, and cultivating relationships among student veterans, faculty, and non-veteran peers.

Yoon and Sullivan did not find many empirical-based studies in their review of previous research, which favored conceptual and theoretical treatments. They saw an opportunity to address the gap in the literature in a mixed-methods approach collecting both qualitative and quantitative data about student veteran experiences. This would become the project they discussed during our recent webinar.

The project included a survey and a series of interviews with UCCS student veterans. Each method tackled its own primary question. The interview process was designed to glean what student veterans perceived about the strengths they brought to the university setting, while the survey data examined how these perceptions affected student veterans' academic performance in terms of self-efficacy and motivation.

Yoon and Sullivan developed the survey questions based on the limited empirical extant in the literature, which fell within three areas of strength: commitment/discipline, worldview, and connection to others.

The researchers describe commitment/discipline as the determination and drive imparted by military experience. They define worldview as the capacity veterans develop to hold a nuanced understanding of individuals, backgrounds, and cultures different from their own. Finally, they describe connection to others as the idea that military experiences build key interpersonal skills, such as leading and working with others, including those with diverse backgrounds.

By conducting multiple regression analyses of the survey responses about these perceived strengths, the researchers confirmed that they had a positive impact on students' perceptions of self-efficacy and academic motivation. Commitment/discipline and worldview were the strongest predictors of academic motivation, while connection to others had a stronger correlation with self-efficacy.

For the interview process, Yoon and Sullivan drew upon their academic specializations, orienting discussion around communication strengths and styles. They found broad consensus among military students about the unique qualities of military communication. For example, it tends to favor efficiency, prioritizing important information and action.

Student veterans find this style of communication helpful beyond their military life, including at the university. At the same time, the interviews revealed contextualized communication as another student veteran strength. The communication professors laud this as a high-order soft skill, one that can be difficult to teach students and even executives.

In essence, student veterans display expertise in a cardinal communication competency: knowing your audience. Contextualizing communication requires not only strong self-awareness but also an understanding of the hierarchy and objectives that define each communication landscape. Yoon and Sullivan describe the mastery of flexibility, adaptability, and sensitivity to context as a significant finding among student veteran strengths.

Remaining within the framework of contextualized communication, additional key strengths emerged during interviews with the student veterans. They aligned with the strengths the survey phase of the research tested for (commitment/discipline, worldview, and connection to others). Here, the strengths were drive, diversity, and leadership.

For example, during interviews, student veterans talked about how a broadened worldview prepared them to communicate and work with anyone from any walk of life, which Yoon and Sullivan note is a major advantage in a university setting. Most of the interview subjects had traveled to more than 30 countries during their time in the military. That experience cultivated a mindset that '' anyone from anywhere can have a good idea' and deemphasized race, class, gender, and sexuality as perceived factors in ability.

Student veterans' leadership strength also proved relevant to academic settings during the interviews. Well-practiced in mentoring, delegating, and facilitating, many of the student veterans expressed a desire for more opportunities to exercise these competencies in the classroom. They admitted it can be frustrating, as experienced adult learners with high-level skill sets, to be subsumed within groups of 18- or 19-year-old traditional students with far less prior learning or experience. They felt if allowed to leverage their leadership potential, they could help instructors improve the learning experience of the entire group.

On a more individual level, the 'drive' attribute common to student veterans draws on discipline and focus to help student veterans complete their goals from start to finish with the flexibility to prioritize tasks according to urgency.

Not surprisingly, Yoon and Sullivan recommend a strengths-based approach to framing student veterans. As communication experts, they stress that the very way we talk about groups has a material impact on how they are included or excluded. For example, it can determine whether we view them as helpers or in need of help. It also affects policy and support system design.

The researchers urge faculty, staff, and other stakeholders to identify ways to harness student veteran strengths in the classroom and beyond. For example, instructors could draw on student veteran experiences to complement class discussions and activities. Student veterans might even serve as auxiliary experts or resources for non-veteran peers.

Yoon and Sullivan also call on postsecondary institutions to encourage student veterans to reflect on and express the strengths they have developed from their military experience. While they acknowledge that the inclination varies by student, the study participants made it clear many are eager to do so. Yoon and Sullivan argue that designing assignments, venues, or other opportunities for student veterans to consider and share their perspectives, particularly with respect to career aspirations, can be a tangible and practical way to apply a strengths-based approach in support of the student veteran academic experience.

It's clear from Yoon and Sullivan's work that student veterans find great value in their service experience and want to use that to add value to the collective postsecondary experience. As postsecondary institutions work to maintain much-needed specialized support systems, they can benefit from guidance on integrating the full potential of student veteran strengths. For information about CAEL's support of veterans and partnership opportunities, contact cael@cael.org.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345016214_Student_Veterans'_Strengths_Exploring_Student_Veterans'_Perceptions_of_Their_Strengths_and_How_to_Harness_Them_in_Higher_Education

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