College students across the country have experienced the financial, social, and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened national conversation on systemic racism. Student veterans are no exception. As we discussed in a previous blog post, the pandemic has exacerbated the complex challenges that student veterans face in completing their postsecondary education: they are now navigating the uncertainties of GI Bill funding and in many cases, balancing financial insecurity and family responsibilities, all of which affect progress toward their academic goals.
During this time, colleges and universities have also experienced unique challenges in supporting student veterans, specifically in how to communicate and connect with students as instruction and services have shifted online. To support its members in meeting student veterans’ needs, the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a national coalition of 131 high-graduation-rate colleges and universities that have pledged to increase opportunity for low- and middle-income students, held a virtual forum on June 24, 2020, for 36 representatives from its Veterans Community of Practice. These participants, along with representatives from five veteran service organizations (VSOs), discussed the challenges of supporting student veterans and shared the practices they have employed to grapple with the issues of the current moment. In this blog post, we share three key insights that emerged during the virtual forum’s small and large group conversations.
Building community is crucial, especially through peer-to-peer student engagement
The shift to remote instruction during the spring semester created many barriers to engaging student veterans not only “in the (now virtual) classroom,” but also in maintaining a sense of belonging in environments “outside of the classroom.” Prior to COVID-19, most of the “out of class” engagement between student veterans happened in-person, including campus events, residential student engagement, study groups, mentorship programs, student organizations, and other similar forms of community building practices that are no longer available to student veterans. But, COVID-19 has disrupted in-person activities, which makes creating a sense of belonging and community, factors that are essential to the retention and persistence of student veterans, much more difficult.
As such, webinar participants emphasized the importance of keeping student veterans engaged with their peers and faculty through online, peer-to-peer connections and comprehensive, impactful peer mentorship programs. For example, Columbia University used its mentoring and peer-to-peer program to communicate with the student veteran community faster than administrators could and to maintain high levels of engagement amongst student veterans. Institutions have also offered webinars to current student veterans that provide academic and career enrichment as well as therapeutic services. For example, Columbia University hosted webinars on how to stay motivated when learning virtually and Georgetown University’s veterans office and campus recreation office hosted a virtual work out in honor of Memorial Day.
VSOs have also faced similar challenges in keeping student veterans engaged and have continued their programming through virtual forums. For example, the Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps student veterans transition from military service to the classroom through in-person academic boot camps, shifted to remote programming. VSOs have also used online platforms to host regular community check-ins with student veterans.
Regular and creative virtual communication and outreach is necessary
Both institutions and VSOs typically rely heavily on in-person gatherings when conducting outreach to prospective students and supporting current students, all of which were disrupted due to COVID-19. Additionally, facing uncertainty, student veterans had many questions such as how the GI Bill might affect changes in their financial aid, or how altered academic policies (e.g. pass/fail) would impact their experience. Many attendees identified the need to regularly reach out to both prospective and current student veterans to share relevant information. Without in-person events, many institutions and organizations have to be creative in their outreach to student veterans.
Some practices that surfaced during the virtual forum included sending out frequent information to students with pertinent information (e.g., GI Bill funding information or changes to academic policies). For example, Fordham University hosted a webinar to help current and prospective students navigate changing GI Bill regulations during the pandemic. Other institutions have utilized virtual forums to engage prospective students specifically. Rutgers University, for example, hosted a virtual open house for prospective student veterans. Webinar participants also identified a need to talk with colleagues both at their peer institutions and within their own institutions about how the fall-out from COVID-19 may affect admissions and enrollment processes in fall 2021 and 2022.
VSOs are also trying to maintain active communication with prospective students by using individual conversations and virtual events to ensure that prospective students know the right questions to ask college admissions officers (e.g. Should I take the SAT/ACT if the school’s admissions policy is test-optional? What resources are available to me both financially and academically as a student veteran?), and how to be generally prepared for starting their degree. For example, Columbia University’s Center for Veterans Transition and Integration and the organization, Veterans Education Success (VES), co-hosted a webinar on how prospective student veterans can choose the best college for them even as the college application process is changing due to the pandemic.
Supporting students holistically is essential to their wellbeing and success
Many student veterans have always had needs outside of their “traditional” academic responsibilities. With the onset of the pandemic, though, many are now faced with pandemic-related housing issues, food insecurity, and family responsibilities, among other challenges, making it even more difficult to progress to their degree. Others have been called into active duty for the National Guard for pandemic response, taking more time away from their studies temporarily. Further, in the aftermath of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Riah Milton, and others, student veterans, who are more likely to be Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, are facing challenges both personal and structural during conversations on addressing systemic racism.
For institutions, finding ways to support the “whole student” during the pandemic has also been a challenge. Participants in the virtual forum identified the need to ensure that student veterans have stable housing and food security, and several discussed having virtual community check-ins or one-on-one conversations with students. Others mentioned how they worked with student veterans to find childcare and navigate caring for their children and other family members at home while working and going to school. Institutions and VSOs have also been figuring out how to support students who were transitioned to active duty in the National Guard. They also want to support students whose work-study or other forms of employment were affected by the pandemic. More recently, institutions and VSOs are also devising ways to support student veterans who have been mobilized to respond to Black Lives Matter protests.
There are many aspects of the student experience, and participants felt strongly about supporting student veterans in a manner that addresses their holistic needs, not just their academic needs. Some suggestions and best practices that the group discussed were emergency funds (both grants and loans) provided by institutions or VSOs to support student veterans through financial hardship. They also spoke of the importance of employing additional support staff on campuses, and making sure that their institutions preserve these positions during budget cuts. Overall, institutions and organizations felt it was crucial to continue the kinds of conversations explored during the virtual forum as a community of practice in order to help one another best support their student veterans.
VSOs have also helped in directing student veterans to needed resources, counseling support for students whose schools have closed, and have also provided emergency funds for moving and living expenses. VSOs like VES have also used their platforms to get legislation passed to protect student veterans and their VA work-study and GI funding.
We will continue convening the ATI Veterans Community of Practice through informal virtual forums. We are planning to host another forum in July that will bring together members to share their insights on how to best support student veterans when planning for the Fall 2020 semester.
Thank you to our guest speakers—Christine Schwartz (Service to School), Jesse Tossetti (Warrior-Scholar Project), Marcus Felder (Posse Veterans Program), Tanya Ang (Veterans Education Success), and David Keefe (Center for Veteran Transition and Integration, Columbia University)—for their contributions to the conversation and insights into how their organizations have been supporting student veterans. Thank you also to our participants for engaging in meaningful and thought-provoking conversation on such an important topic.