Veterans in Higher Education: What Every Adviser May Want to Know

Jose E. Coll, Hans Oh, Craig Joyce, and Lazara C. Coll
University of Southern California

Volume: 11
Article first published online: April 29, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161502


With the current influx of soldiers returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the newly revised Post-9/11 GI Bill affords veterans the opportunity to attend state colleges free of charge, which may result in a dramatic increase in enrollment of veterans in colleges across the country. However, most learning institutions are ill-equipped to accommodate the special needs of those veteran students who may experience adjustment problems when reintegrating into a civilian setting. Veterans return with a newly acquired value system shaped by military service that can create dissonance when interacting with non-military people. Moreover, veterans may suffer from complex physical injuries, severe cognitive damages, and a host of psychological traumas. This paper surveys the special needs of the veteran student population and introduces resources to which veteran students may be referred. In doing so, this paper calls academic advisers to employ more holistic and strengths-based approaches to advising to promote retention and academic success for veteran students.

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, veterans, higher education, military, soldier, returning vet, Iraq, Afghanistan, war

Over the years, academic advising has played an increasingly important role in promoting student success in postsecondary institutions. Various studies suggest that students with positive relationships with their advisers and professors report higher levels of satisfaction with their respective schools and demonstrate higher levels of academic success (Coll, 2009; Coll & Zalaquett, 2008). Most institutions of higher learning have started to notice an increase in enrollment of veteran students who have returned from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advisers and student counseling centers will be required to address issues that have not been addressed at their institutions since warriors returned from the Vietnam War.

Unlike their previous counterparts, current combat veterans are discharged from service under a newly revised GI Bill, which provides full tuition paid directly to any state university a veteran wishes to attend. The Post-9/11 GI Bill to be implemented in August 2009 affords veterans the opportunity to become more educated and employable, an enticing offer for veterans, particularly in this current economy. It is important to recognize that university advisers, faculty, and counseling centers may not be prepared to provide adequate services to veteran students returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In light of the impending influx of veteran students into higher education, this paper seeks to inform educators about the specific needs of the veteran student population as well as the important role advisers may play in retaining veteran students and assisting in their academic success.

The Importance of Advising

Academic advising has been defined as a process that helps students develop professional, interpersonal, and academic success through relationships with and guidance from faculty members or assigned advising staff (Gordon, 2006). It is perhaps one of the few services that provide students with the opportunity to form positive and lasting relationships with mentors who can encourage development (King & Kerr, 2005; King, 1993). Academic advising proves to have a significant impact on the way students perceive their college experiences, and subsequently, institutions of higher education have used academic advising as a primary means of increasing student retention (Carstensen & Silberhorn, 1979; Glennen, 1976; Noel, 1976; Tinto, 2006).

In general, students in college tend to form transient relationships with different instructors or administrators within the institution. Oftentimes academic advising can be the only continual and reliable means of engaging students, which makes it all the more imperative for advisers to play an active role in assisting veteran students entering college for the first time. Advisers must be prepared to meet the needs of an emerging multicultural student body by exercising competence around issues of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and age. Moreover, advisers must now be more mindful of the nuanced and complex psychosocial issues that are unique to subsets of the incoming student population. When advising veteran students, for instance, advisers must recognize that certain course material may invoke memories of combat-related atrocities, resulting in emotional distress and trauma. Thus, increasing student retention and academic success may require a heightened awareness and sensitivity to veteran needs.

What Advisers Ought to Know about Veterans

Of the increased population of veteran students returning to or beginning college, a large number has sustained injuries during combat deployment and will qualify for Chapter 30 Vocational Rehabilitation services. Like the GI Bill, this provision provides the financial means for injured soldiers to attain college degrees. These injuries are both physical and psychological in nature and range from complex physical injuries (such as multiple amputations or severe traumatic brain injury) to serious cognitive impairments and psychological disturbances that often accompany the physical injuries.

That is to say, veterans face co-occurring physical and mental health issues that invariably affect their family systems. It is anticipated that at least 30 percent of all returning veterans will meet DSM: IV-R criteria for serious mental health disorders, some of which include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance addiction, and other anxiety-related disorders. Substance abuse is particularly common in returning veterans and occurs in approximately 50 to 85 percent of those diagnosed with PTSD. Veterans who suffer from PTSD experience significantly higher rates of marital, parental, and familial adjustment problems than those without PTSD (Exum & Coll, 2008). In fact, studies show that exposure to combat is considerably more influential in predisposing individuals to marital and family problems than any other variable. The elevated levels of behavioral problems, domestic violence, child abuse, and spousal and partner stress have been evident in Vietnam veterans and are now evident in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

It is estimated that the rate of interpersonal violence for veteran and active-duty populations is three times greater than that of civilian populations. Many veterans are prone to act out in violence (or at least respond to precipitating circumstances with violence) and this raises much concern for school administrators who must ensure the safety and wellbeing of all students on campus. Upon cursory examination, veteran students may function normally and “fly under the radar” when unprovoked. However, advisers should still be mindful of any disruptions in the personal lives of veteran students, which may signify a greater likelihood of disturbances taking place in more public settings, like the campus or classroom.

Reasons for joining the military

Men and women join the military for a variety of reasons. Some join because of the opportunities to travel and seek adventure. Others join based on family tradition. Many join out of a sense of patriotism, particularly in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. There are also those who join because they are undecided about their future plans after completing high school and view military service as a way to learn professional skills, gain experience, or save money for college.

Military culture

A diverse cross section of backgrounds can be found in the military; however, upon entering military service, all recruits, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation are promptly indoctrinated into a unifying military culture composed of values, traditions, norms, and perceptions that govern how members of the armed forces communicate and interact with each other and with the rest of the world. When reentering civilian life, veterans continue to operate according to this military culture, which in some instances has proven to be problematic. The following is an exploration of the core values that shape the military culture and how this culture continues to affect veteran students as they adjust to the university environment.

The values of the military originate from the underlying belief that the sole purpose of the armed forces is to protect the Constitution and serve the Commander in Chief. That is to say, the military does not act autonomously from the government, but rather, carries out orders issued by the president. Thus, patriotism and civic duty are prominent motifs that shape the worldviews of soldiers. Though individuals will adhere to these principles to varying degrees, the values presented in this discussion are generally accepted by all branches of the military and bear some influence in forming the identity of a soldier. And while these values are not exclusive or unique to the military, soldiers learn to abide by these standards with particular closeness, because they are products of an intense socialization process that strips them of individual identity and bestows upon them a collective identity.

Two fundamental values upon which the military culture is established are honor and integrity. Military personnel strive to be honest and truthful while taking responsibility for their actions. They have very little tolerance for improper behavior (U.S. Navy, 2004, as cited in Exum & Coll, 2008) and strive to conduct themselves according to uncompromising ethics (U.S. Coast Guard, 2004, as cited in Exum & Coll, 2008). In practical terms, they speak frankly and make every effort to keep their promises. Subsequently, veterans may not readily identify with civilian students who renege, fail to honor appointments, or communicate in a less-than-forward manner.

In addition to these values, the military culture is deeply committed to excellence (U.S. Navy, 2004, as cited in Exum & Coll, 2008). Soldiers are devoted to their duties and may not be satisfied with mediocrity, sloppiness, or complacency. When entering a diverse school setting, where students spend significant time outside of the classroom in unstructured activities, veteran students may perceive any departure from routine as unproductive. In other words, a veteran's commitment to excellence may translate into disciplined behaviors, which can draw a sharp contrast to other typical behaviors exhibited by civilian students.

Furthermore, military personnel are fiercely loyal, which is exemplified in the motto of the Marine Corps, “Semper Fidelis,” which means “Always Faithful.” Members of the armed forces are devoted to one another, because they share a common identity and experience. But moreover, they pledge a considerable amount of unwavering allegiance to the United States, which may prompt some soldiers to defend unpopular political beliefs in the classroom setting.

Perhaps the issue of respect creates the most dissonance for veteran students. Members of the armed forces value respect, particularly as it relates to higher authority. The organization of the military is governed by a chain of command in which officers are ranked and vested with a certain degree of authority over subordinates. These subordinates may also exercise authority over their own subordinates, and so forth. By following this formal hierarchy of authority, the military preempts resistance and avoids conflicts of personality, since every person must obey legitimate directives from superiors without question or doubt (Waller, 1944). The military has “high power distance” in its organization, which means subordinates are less likely to challenge direct orders (Hofstede, 2001). The military deliberately fosters this behavior, because successful completion of missions relies on immediate compliance. Although subordinates reserve the right to refuse direct orders, they very seldom do.

The working definition of respect in the military does not necessarily carry over into civilian life. From a soldier's standpoint, respect is conferred through obedience and unquestioned compliance, whereas in civilian life, respect may be communicated in less rigid terms. This discrepancy is most evident in school settings where there is an absence of an identifiable chain of command. Veteran students seek a structured environment and an unobstructed path of authority. They want to be provided with clear objectives and procedures, and they prefer to be addressed in a direct manner. It may be incredibly disorienting for veterans to be in a didactic setting in which students question the course material or challenge the authority in the classroom.

In summation, the military culture continues to affect veteran students even in the school setting. The values that have shaped the veterans create dissonance when applied to civilian life, as veteran students may find that they have incongruent expectations and political views than those of civilian students. When considering the impact of military culture, it is important to note that while on active duty, soldiers follow this code of conduct twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on and off base, from the moment they enter the military until the moment they leave. The military believes that the pervasive application of these standards is necessary, because soldiers must be prepared at all times for deployment into combat. Culture that is so heavily and consistently enforced does not diminish easily.

Special needs of veteran students

There are a number of issues that specifically affect the incoming veteran student population. A veteran student may suffer from complex physical problems, such as multiple amputations or traumatic brain injuries, or the student can suffer from cognitive impairments and mood disorders like depression. Veterans are also susceptible to psychological traumas that debilitate normal functioning. The most discussed psychological disorder when dealing with veterans is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect soldiers who experience or witness an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. Veterans who suffer from PTSD are struck with acute stress reactions that manifest in the form of intense fear, helplessness, or horror (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Advisers should be apprised of these physical and psychological issues and be prepared to refer students to professional treatment.

What Should You Know Regarding Treatment Modalities?

Although we do not expect academic advisers to provide therapeutic treatment to veteran students, we do encourage advisers to become familiar with treatment modalities and services available at university counseling centers, private practices, and the Veterans Administration. Sensitivity and attentiveness are crucial when advising veteran students who are struggling to readjust to civilian life. Again, we stress that it is not the role of the academic adviser to provide therapeutic treatment. This level of care should be left to professional clinical counselors trained in the following areas: (a) education, (b) coping skills training, (c) cognitive restructuring, (d) exposure therapy, (d) family counseling, and (e) pharmacological treatment, if needed. However, it is the adviser's role to monitor veteran students and ensure that they are well supported. We recommend a proactive approach to advising, which can be done by checking in periodically with students and asking them about school, work, friends, and family. Upon detection of emotional, relational, or psychological disturbance, advisers can make referrals to the appropriate services when necessary.


The educational aspect of care focuses on helping veterans to recognize and understand their symptoms. By creating awareness, a clinician can normalize certain veteran experiences and reduce the fear and shame associated with their symptoms. The clinician will also explain the recovery process to veterans as a way of helping them regain a sense of control over seemingly unmanageable conditions. The education component to treatment should address specific disorders like PTSD but should also explore general anxieties and fears regarding the homecoming and reintegration process.

Coping skills training

Coping skills training is designed to help veterans regain a sense of personal control over their emotions and impulses through the use of practical tools and exercises. Coping skills training typically works through coaching, in which clients role-play hypothetical scenarios and rehearse more positive behaviors while receiving feedback from the counselor. The veteran then applies these skills in the real world and monitors progress until the next session. This type of treatment is appropriate for students dealing with anger or anxiety management issues, students who lack interpersonal communication, and/or students with unstable emotional grounding.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a widely used, empirically validated treatment for PTSD (Foa, Keane, & Friedman, 2000) that is designed to help clients challenge negative and self-defeating thoughts. By understanding the relationship between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, clients learn to reframe maladaptive thoughts relating to war-zone experiences into healthier ones. This treatment may be appropriate for veteran students who have a difficult time discussing specific topics in class or have trouble viewing certain films.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy (also called trauma processing) is designed to help veterans confront their trauma-related emotions and memories. It involves having veterans repeatedly verbalize the incidents that trouble them until their fear responses diminish. Exposure therapy may also be conducted through real-time experiences, in which veterans revisit locations or reenact situations that symbolize traumatic experiences. Exposure therapy with veterans is usually conducted in conjunction with education, coping skills training, and cognitive restructuring.

Family counseling

Family counseling invites veterans to recognize that they are members of a larger social system. It is crucial to remember that veterans who have trouble readjusting to civilian life will also affect their families. Having said this, successful recovery and reintegration often hinges on consistent long-term family support. Thus, it is essential that struggling veterans and their significant others receive family counseling to facilitate the reintegration process into normal family life. Family counseling includes education, couple's counseling, family therapy, parenting workshops, and/or conflict resolution training. These treatments have proven to reduce the likelihood of future problems (Ruzek et al., 2003).

Pharmacological treatment

This form of treatment is typically provided by physicians in conjunction with a multidisciplinary team of mental healthcare professionals. The physician generally prescribes psychotropic drugs to treat war-induced psychological disorders like PTSD; however, the medication is usually supplemented with other forms of treatment. The student must carefully consider a decision to pursue this treatment modality. Academic advisers and counselors within universities should become familiar with the various medications available to veterans as well as the side effects.

A Strengths-Based Approach to Working with Veteran Students

We cannot stress enough the importance of holistic advising when dealing with veterans in higher education. These students have been shaped by life-altering experiences that affect their thoughts and behaviors at home, at work, and in the classroom. Recovery and reintegration into civilian life will require physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual restoration. When students are haunted by traumatic combat-related memories, advisers should defer to expert healthcare professionals to address the more serious clinical issues. However, in other less urgent circumstances, advisers can help play a part in enabling veteran students to succeed in higher education by employing a strengths-based approach to advising.

When interacting with veteran students, advisers should listen actively and communicate positively with the intent to promote self-awareness, motivation, and autonomy. By using a strengths-based approach to advising, advisers can help veteran students overcome challenges and adversities by capitalizing on the students' resources, capabilities, and support systems. This shift in focus can help students build the self-esteem necessary to manage any personal deficits or challenges. Appropriate motivational questions are as follows:

We are not suggesting that advisers gloss over transitional crises (these issues must be handled with great care); however, we are suggesting that advisers help steer the student away from dwelling on shortfalls. Overemphasizing deficits can ultimately cause hopelessness and disruption of self-efficacy. A strengths-based perspective can transform a veteran's disposition from resignation into resilience, and with the help of the adviser, a veteran student can learn to develop habits and adopt attitudes that will lead to autonomy and resilience.

The Role of Advising

First, it is essential that advisers develop a sense of self-awareness when dealing with veteran students. The political discourse associated with the military can sometimes ignite strong discussions around the war and international affairs. For the sake of sustaining a trusting relationship with the student, it is crucial to suspend judgment and abandon any personal worldviews or biases about the war that may jeopardize the relationship while advising veteran students. Instead, advisers should strive to develop the cultural competence that is instrumental in developmental advising (Coll & Zalaquett, 2008; Sue & Sue, 2003). This includes becoming familiar with the specific problems that affect veteran students, who are a growing subset of the student population.

With a strong foundation of self-awareness and a familiarity with veteran issues, advisers may engage in meaningful relationships with students, providing a positive and safe environment for them to develop personal goals, seek assistance with school, and make future professional plans. Furthermore, the adviser serves as a sympathetic ear when listening to student concerns regarding the institution. This is important because the act of ventilation provides veteran students with an adaptive and safe way to relieve tension. Having encouraging advisers who can help veteran students navigate through the school experience has proven to enhance the growth and success of veteran students and has promoted institutional retention as well (Coll, 2009; Nutt, 2000).

Lastly, we suggest utilizing faculty members as advisers to provide opportunities for veteran students to engage with them beyond the classroom setting. Such practices have been established within the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, specifically in the new military social work concentration, in which faculty with previous military experience can advise veteran students throughout the duration of the program. This is perhaps just one way among others to increase retention of veteran students. Ultimately, it is important to create a positive college environment in which the veteran student may achieve personal growth, dignity, self worth, academic greatness, and individual autonomy.


With the impending influx of veteran students, colleges and universities will have to prepare their counseling centers to accommodate veteran-specific issues that include but are not limited to posttraumatic stress disorder, combat anxiety, depression, and emotional instability, among other psychosocial issues. Advisers and faculty members must also be trained to recognize the unique challenges of engaging veteran students, taking into consideration the strong military culture and combat-related experiences that shaped who they are today. The veteran student identity may become more pronounced in the classroom setting, when veteran students draw from their unique experiences to challenge the views of their peers and the institution as a whole. And so, advisers and faculty members should practice a holistic approach to advising that considers and respects personal views and experiences.

A holistic and strengths-based approach to advising facilitates a unique situational awareness between adviser and veteran advisee such that both parties become cognizant of specific learning challenges and cultural barriers that affect the student's ability to succeed. Together, the adviser and advisee can take an inventory of strengths and resources held by the veteran student, while brainstorming practical ways to facilitate the adjustment process. This collaborative and engaging relationship between adviser and advisee often produces a level of satisfaction and enthusiasm in the student, which ultimately promotes retention.

It is our intent that institutions will develop the appropriate services to assist veteran students, who, like any other students, strive to better themselves and their families. At the very least, advisers, faculty members, and administrators can develop a stronger cultural awareness of the veteran experience, thereby fostering a more veteran-friendly environment on campus that will likely promote academic success and retention among veterans.


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About the Author(s)

Jose E. Coll, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor in the University of Southern California's School of Social Work and coordinator of the Military Social Work program. He can be reached at

Hans Oh, Craig Joyce, and Lazara C. Coll are master of social work candidates at the University of Southern California.