Veterans: Make Your Voices Heard on Campus

I knew it would happen. As soon as my article "Why Professors Love Veterans" went up, the emails started pouring in. Most writers celebrated academics' support for veterans, but some remarked that their own experience contradicted my rosy assessment of faculty attitudes.

"It's not like that in Engineering," one writer told me. "My professors don't love veterans!"

"It's no better than after Vietnam," wrote another.

A medical student complained that her pacifist professor constantly berated her in front of classmates for her military service. "I can't succeed in this class!" she said. "He doesn't want me to be an Army doctor!" Do professors have the right to their anti-military opinions? Of course they do. Do they have the right to publically humiliate students who have served? Absolutely not!

Faced with faculty animosity, veterans often have no idea where to turn. Many feel isolated on campus to begin with. They are older than their peers and their life experience is radically different from theirs. Some suffer from health problems resulting from injuries or the trauma of battle, and some are struggling with serious issues that their classmates will not have to face for years: spouses, children, mortgages, bills. An unwelcoming environment on campus only intensifies their sense of estrangement.

However, there is much that veterans can do to offset these conditions. To begin with, they can organize. Veterans' groups have been extraordinarily successful at raising the consciousnesses of administrators and faculty about the specific challenges faced by transitioning military. There is truth to the old adage about strength in numbers. A professor who bullies a single veteran in class may think twice before taking on an entire organization, especially when that organization is dynamic and influential. Besides, when student veterans band together, they can network and share information, offering each other invaluable support. Building a sense of camaraderie among veterans is essential to creating a veteran-friendly atmosphere on campus.

If you are a veteran seeking to create a campus organization, here are some hints:

1. Contact Student Veterans of America (SVA), a national organization that advocates for transitioning military and provides resources and support for veterans' groups at universities. By becoming a chapter of the national SVA, your group will gain access to information about scholarship and employment opportunities, pertinent conferences and meetings, networking, volunteer activities, and much more. SVA routinely lobbies Congress for veterans' rights and can help individual veterans navigate the daunting bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

2. Build a web presence. It is important to let veterans on campus know about your organization and its activities. A good web page also includes data such as names and emails of administrators who work with veterans, campus services, changes in G.I. Bill benefits, and pertinent campus events. An effective web page creates a sense of belonging among student veterans and will be the first place potential applicants check when they seek to learn whether your institution is veteran-friendly.

3. Find a faculty advisor who is committed to your cause. Your faculty advisor can perform invaluable services, such as guiding you through the university bureaucracy and arranging meetings for your officers with top university officials, who might not otherwise be disposed to meet with students. In addition, the Faculty Advisor provides continuity for your organization, ensuring that your efforts keep on bearing fruit long after you graduate and move on. As Faculty Advisor to the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association (GUSVA), I was been able to secure a spot for our president on the university Yellow Ribbon committee, lobby vigorously for the creation of a Veterans Office, and even obtain free basketball tickets for veterans.

There are other things you can do to make your campus more veteran-friendly as well.

1. Form a campus network. At Georgetown, several campus offices were already providing services to veterans before the formation of the GUSVA, but due to a lack of communication, they were largely unaware of each others' activities. The creation of the Veterans Support Team (VST), a coalition of administrators, faculty, and students concerned with veteran-related issues, provided a new forum for information-sharing.

2. Create a Veterans Office. Largely due to the lobbying efforts of the GUSVA and the VST, Georgetown established a Veterans Office with a fulltime coordinator, David Shearman, in December 2011. As an Army veteran and graduate student himself , Shearman easily navigates both the military and university bureaucracies, enabling him to advise, support, and inform veterans effectively.

3. Reach out to faculty and fellow students. At Georgetown, veterans have initiated several significant projects, among them a faculty outreach program to increase awareness of veteran-related issues among instructors, and a photographic exhibition to inform the student body about the war experiences of some of their peers.

4. Increase your pool of qualified veteran applicants. By increasing your numbers, you will build a stronger advocatory base. Georgetown's outreach program was initiated by a student veteran, Colby Howard, and includes special informational brochures and campus tours.

But what if, in spite of the existence of all these apparatuses, a student veteran still faces hostility in the classroom? Rosemary Kilkenny, Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity at Georgetown, offers several suggestions: First, if the bullying behavior appears to be harassment due to the student's veteran or military status, the student can file a complaint with IDEAA (Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action). A second option is to file such a complaint using the on-line University Bias Reporting process, after which the bias team will review the matter determine how to proceed. A third option is to file a complaint with the Dean's office that has jurisdiction over the professor.

Although not all universities have the same grievance apparatus as Georgetown, nearly all have some sort of structure in place for filing harassment complaints. In the case that a professor's conduct becomes intolerable, student veterans should be aware of their options.