Military veterans transitioning from service to the classroom face challenges more complex than simply memorizing dates, learning theories and mastering equations.
Adjusting to the college environment, in general, often is the most difficult part of the transition from military life, said John Schupp, who recently launched the Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran (SERV) program at Cleveland State University in Ohio, specifically designed to help veteran students make those adjustments. The program is open to veterans only and is geared to ease them into student life rather than let them become overwhelmed, Schupp said. Campus life and the bureaucracy of a university can be a difficult transition for anyone, especially someone coming from a military background, he noted. DART The idea for the program came in 2006 after Schupp, a chemistry professor, received a call from a student who'd been having trouble with her course work. The student was a military veteran who spent nearly three years in Kosovo in the late 1990s and had been in and out of college for the eight years since, Schupp said. The student explained how, after eight years, she finally felt like a student and felt like she fit in as a member of the university, he added. "Listening to her talk about her experiences in Kosovo, then [thinking about] her having to listen to a teacher and freshman students discuss their issues and trying to make that kind of adjustment, ... I thought to myself that this is a problem that's going to happen time and again, and I want to know what can I do about it," he said. Schupp began researching veterans' use of educational benefits such as the Montgomery GI Bill with the local and state Veterans Affairs offices. He said he learned that although money for college is one of the most appealing reasons people join the military, fewer than 10 percent of veterans actually take advantage of their educational benefits. He interviewed Vietnam and Gulf War veterans over a six-month period, asking why they didn't use their GI Bill and what would have kept them in school, he added. Most veterans claimed to have difficulty concentrating in class, Schupp explained. "So, my experiment was to change the environment," he said. "It's either the building or the people, so let me take the civilians out of the equation." Schupp convinced university officials to permit a test class to find out how veterans would do and react, he said. A pilot class of 14 chemistry students took the first exam of the program last spring, and the results were "remarkable," he said. "It wasn't just circling or matching the answers," Schupp said. "They actually had to know and write out the answers. They handed it in -- no one tore it up or walked out -- and when I graded them, they had a higher average than my civilian classes." The program's learning environment is much more comfortable, because the veterans-only classes are much smaller than classes open to the whole student population and the students know everyone else in the classroom understands them and has similar experiences. "By taking the civilians out of the environment, it allows [the veterans] to relax and focus on what they have to do as well as give them the confidence to ... take the test and not worry about the environment," he said. The veteran classes also have turned into "mini-counseling sessions," Schupp said. Because the classes are composed entirely of veterans, the students speak openly about their experiences and what they've been through. "I didn't realize what was happening, but they get to class about 15 minutes prior and talk about their issues," he explained. "So what's happening is they're having these mini-counseling sessions four times a day, two days a week. We've disguised counseling sessions with English 101, Math 101 and Science 101." Schupp also identified the issues veterans were having during their first day on campus. Under the program, veterans meet with someone one-on-one rather than dealing with "long, confusing lines and the bureaucracy of university registrations and admissions," Schupp said. Of the 14 original students, 10 went on to the summer semester. By fall semester, 25 veteran students participated, and 41 are enrolled for the current spring semester, he said. The program offers 12 credit hours of veterans-only classes for the students' first semester, then nine credit hours for the next, so full-time students have to take three credit hours of civilian course work, Schupp said. Universities and colleges and Veterans Affairs systems across the country have taken interest in CSU's veteran-student program, Schupp said. So far, 23 universities and colleges are considering offering the SERV program as early as the fall semester, he added.