Warriors in the Academy: Veterans Transition from the Military to Higher Education




Anderson, Julia

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Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are enrolling in higher education at a rapidly increasing pace. Though there is a growing body of research about this newest generation of student-veterans, what is lacking is an exploration of veteran’s social and institutional biography and the qualities of higher education institutions that most impact their transition experience. To address these questions, I conducted a qualitative study about the experiences of military veterans as they transitioned to higher education, observing a student-veteran organization and conducting semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 22 veterans attending a large public university. The research revealed two aspects of their biography that posed challenges when they first arrived on the college campus—social class and military service. Many veterans suffer the “hidden injuries” of coming from a working-class background—an aspect of their transition that has been under-examined. While the military is credited with being an unusually class-leveling institution, time during service does nothing to diminish many of the class effects that make higher education challenging for those who were from poor or working-class homes, therefore social class reemerges as an influential factor in the transition. The military has transformed them in some ways that are particularly misaligned with the university, contributing to what many of them experience as culture shock. Adjustment to life post-“total institution” with the nebulous identity of “veteran” compounded the difficulty of reintegration. My research suggests that veterans in transition seem to experience the university as primarily what it is not. As campuses develop and evaluate initiatives to meet the needs of student-veterans, some best practices have emerged. Two of the recommendations most often mentioned are mentorship programs and university-supported student-veteran organizations; what veterans gain through those organizations and interactions is a sense of belonging. This research offers an important contribution for those committed to assisting student-veterans and offers five concrete suggestions: identify the veterans on campus; facilitate programs that enhance sense of belonging; sensitize faculty; centralize resources; and maintain ongoing dialogue with the student-veteran population.



Qualitative study, Military, Student-veterans, Higher education, Transition