Veterans seek support in transition to college life

With issues like post-traumatic stress disorder rising in numbers, Columbia’s own large population of military veterans are sounding off on their mental health needs.

“I haven’t visited them [Counseling & Psychological Services], and I don’t know any other veterans who have visited it,” said John McClelland, vice president of U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University and a recent contributor to The Eye magazine.

Despite this, McClelland is quick to recognize the difficulties of the transition process from active duty to campus life.

This transition has little to do with expanding independence or homesickness, he explained. In the shift from a military to a collegiate setting, veterans must learn to find meaning in a new community with an entirely different value system.

At Columbia, the MilVets group serves as a social network and support system for student-veterans.

“This is a really robust organization,” said Curtis Rodgers, dean of Enrollment Management of the School of General Studies. He praised MilVets for providing veterans with a team-oriented community in an educational environment that often borders on the selfish and individualistic.

McClelland said he is eager to engage in productive debates with members of the Columbia community whose political views are at odds with his own.
He called Columbia “a big melting pot of experience, and the veterans’ experience is definitely one that people can benefit from.”

At least 48 military veterans are currently enrolled as undergraduate students in GS. The recent passing of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has significantly improved scholarship availability, and universities across the country have opened up to returning veterans.

“This year we’re expecting anywhere from 30 to 40 [incoming] student-veterans,” Rodgers said.

In response to this new influx of student-veterans, administrators at Columbia have been working to develop new services that will improve the transition process. Richard Eichler, director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Columbia, said that he is well aware of the growing size of the student-veteran population on campus. “They’ve been vocal—and I think that’s great—in telling the University that they have needs,” he said. “We’re partnering, particularly with GS, to think about how we can develop new programs. What they’ll look like, I can’t quite tell you yet.”

A recent grant proposal concerning funding for new veterans’ services was not approved. Still, Rodgers remains optimistic about future endeavors to assist veterans in the transition process.

“We’ve just started our preliminary meetings to figure out what we can still do,” he said. New initiatives will probably center on “robust orientation activities,” notably a mentoring system to help acquaint incoming veterans with the academic, social, and psychological services available to them.

“From our perspective, it’s an information issue. It’s a transition issue. It’s making sure that students who come to campus are aware of the services that are available to them,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers said he believes that the transmission of relevant information will encourage veterans to seek the help they need. “There’s no stigma associated with it, at all,” he said.

Rodgers stressed the importance of spreading the fact that “our own director of Counseling and Psych Services here has a background and has training from the VA.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, provides patient care to veterans. Their nearest location, located on 125th Street, offers psychological services and support groups to Columbia’s student-veterans.

According to McClelland, actively seeking professional help is hardly encouraged by military culture. “To express yourself as somebody that’s vulnerable is difficult,” he said.

But McClelland believes that a go-between linking veterans, the administration, and CPS could be extremely helpful.

“The only thing that Columbia lacks is really a dedicated trained professional that deals specifically with veterans’ issues,” McClelland said.

Derek Blumke, president of Student Veterans of America, said he is well aware of the serious emotional toll the transition from a military to a collegiate setting can take. After the intense sense of purpose provided by service in the military, college life may feel lacking.

He described the feelings of some of his fellow student-veterans, saying, “They went from doing the most important thing they are ever going to do in their lives to sitting in a college classroom listening to a professor they mostly don’t care about.”

Age gaps and differences in life experience can also prevent veterans from identifying with their peers. Blumke said that depression associated with the shift in values, feelings of isolation from the rest of the student body, and post-traumatic stress can become compounded.

The classroom environment can also feel particularly trying, according to Blumke. Veterans can become discouraged from attending classes when they sense disrespect or hostility among faculty or classmates.

Training faculty and staff to interact positively with veterans has become a concern in universities across the nation. Yet administrators sometimes blunder in their efforts to facilitate veterans’ integration into the college community.

Penn State recently created a training video showing an educator dealing with a hostile student-veteran. Although the intention was positive, the video portrays student-veterans as potentially dangerous figures, and encourages faculty and staff to call the police should they ever feel threatened.

Penn State removed the video from its Web site in February, but the video is now on YouTube. It continues to receive indignant reactions from veterans and civilians alike. “The video highlights the lack of understanding of university administrators,” Blumke said.

Blumke wants SVA to work with universities to create alternative training systems, for faculty and student veterans alike.

He believes that peer-to-peer training and support could facilitate the transition to college life. He argued that getting student veterans to look out for each other, “like when we were on active duty,” could normalize attitudes toward mental health issues and minimize the perception of stigma.

Both Blumke and McClelland are adamant about avoiding the conception that veterans require some sort of special attention. “We don’t want to be seen as a special needs population,” McClelland said.

Rodgers shares their concern. “Our thoughts around the transition program were not ‘this is a population that really needs extra care,’” he said.
Just like any other population, student veterans contain a wide spectrum of experiences, needs, and means of expression.
McClelland joked, “I’m trying to write a novel about it, and that’s my therapy.”

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