HealthJanuary 31, 2020

RN-BSN military students: The top 3 challenges for faculty

Pam Embler, MSN, PhD, RN

Military operations since September 11, 2001 have produced over 3 million student service members and veterans, many of whom then choose to pursue degrees in higher education. These students are predominately male and non-traditional (married with children) and the majority are attending public 2-year institutions.

Faculty may believe that student service members or veteran students will simply blend into the classroom. However, there are three key areas which affect these students more than non-service students.

Completion rates

It is well documented that this group of students often takes more time to obtain a degree. Because of this, it's essential that student service members and veteran students understand that a detour in education is not an end to education. This is especially important for the re-deployed student.

The military prepares service members for teamwork and emphasizes team success over individual success. These students are goal-oriented and have been provided with the requisite skills to identify goals and necessary steps to achievement.

Unfortunately, these skills do not always translate seamlessly to the rigors and requirements of academia. These students may find themselves easily lost in the large college classroom or lecture hall. The connections needed to avail oneself to one-on-one tutoring or student tutoring groups may not materialize out of the inability to identify with fellow students.

The importance of academic advisement

Support for the student service member and veteran student requires more than the assignment of an academic advisor. Issues with test taking and the need for accommodation are often unknown and go unaddressed. This can translate to poor test scores and failure to progress in a course, and subsequently a program.

Studies indicate that connecting these students to a faculty or staff mentor whose job includes providing a clear academic plan, fostering student engagement to peers, orientation to health/wellness and student support services, and monitoring of academic progress often leads to higher rates of academic success and retention.

Higher attrition rate

Attrition rates for student service members and veteran students have been attributed to factors related to behavioral/mental health (substance abuse and psychological factors, including PTSD), difficulties adjusting to the rigors of academia, physical disabilities, financial benefits, and re-deployment. Faculty are often not prepared to successfully navigate complex classroom discussions about the experiences of student service members or veterans. Additionally, faculty are less prepared to provide students with the appropriate referrals to services.

The needs of our student service members and veteran students are complex and involve much more than mental health. There is a growing concern that this limited focus will further stigmatize and stereotype the student. 

Visibility of available services and active participation of student service members and veteran students in these services can aid in eliminating the stigma that surrounds behavioral/mental health.

Valuable resources for faculty

The VA Campus Toolkit (www.mentalhealth.va.gov/StudentVeteran) and the Vet Success Program (www.va.gov/careers-employment/vetsuccess-on-campus) are two resources currently available to assist faculty and staff in understanding the unique challenges and needs of the student service member and veteran students. Similar to cross-cultural training, military cultural competence has been shown to benefit from virtual training exercises where faculty and staff have the opportunity to role play difficult scenarios.

Evaluation of program success

Research into the student service members and veteran students provides the foundation for supports and services needed to adapt to the needs of these well-deserving students. As targeted services and resources are provided, concurrent evaluation research will be able to show what is working best and where improvements can be made, thus evolving to meet the unique needs of this student population.

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