This article describes two recent events for veterans at Long Beach City College, one of which had few veterans in attendance while the other drew large numbers. The differences in these events are described and a model for veteran programs is proposed. It is argued that the celebratory model is the most effective in getting veterans to participate.
Veterans are a complex group with a wide range of military experiences as they make the transition back into “the world.” Perhaps the only real commonality that any group of veterans has is that they have left the military for civilian life. They may have been deployed. They may have been deployed to a combat zone. They may have been in combat. Or they may have had none of these experiences, spending their entire term of service stateside, essentially working an 0800 to 1700 job.
Some will be fiercely proud of their service. Some will be glad to be a civilian again and will look back on their service like any former job, glad to have had the experience, but now moving on to better things. If there is another commonality, it is the training they underwent. I would venture to say that every veteran has had the experience where she or he was pushed to the absolute limit of physical and/or mental endurance and still kept going, putting one foot in front of the other. This experience gives them a toughness and maturity that sets them apart from the non-veteran student.
Veterans are a group worthy of attention. No matter what the nature of their service, the transition from military to civilian life can often be difficult. In the military, everything is provided: food, housing, medical and dental care, even uniforms. To at least some extent, veterans are out of practice providing these things for themselves and some may have trouble coping with these needs. Perhaps the greatest transitional issue, though, is the loss of camaraderie. Whatever their military experience, it was as a member of a close-knit team that trained together, ate together, slept together, and met their mission together. This level of camaraderie exists only in a few places outside of the military, such as police or fire departments and sports teams. In contrast, college students are expected to work on their own and are graded for their work as individuals. Camaraderie, once experienced, can be a great loss once it is gone and it is something that is typically absent among students on a college campus.
At Long Beach City College, the Veterans Affairs Office, which is housed within Financial Aid, began a couple of years ago to offer veterans’ workshops. Invariably and no matter how well advertised, they were poorly attended by the veterans they were designed to serve. These culminated with the Veterans Service Fair, March 27, 2010. Funded by an LBCC Foundation Grant, the fair was advertised widely: to our own veterans, other community colleges close by, neighboring CSUs, local veteran’s service organizations, and the Joint Forces Training Base in nearby Los Alamitos. We set up the fair in the practice field in Veterans Stadium, an enclosed area where—we thought—veterans would feel comfortable. We had representatives from literally every local veteran’s service agency, the VA Health Bus, a jazz band, and a bar-b-que. Guest speakers included the Vice Mayor of Long Beach, the Commanding Officer of the JFTB, and our own Superintendent-President. In spite of the quality of the services available, the great music, and the free food, the representatives from the service agencies outnumbered the veterans who attended by at least three to one (a real tribute to the support there is for veterans in the community). Although we weren’t careful about having veterans sign in, no more than 30 veterans participated in the fair.
Disappointed in the veteran turnout, we pulled all the service providers together before they left the practice field and discussed what we could have done better. We also discussed this event thoroughly at our regular Veterans Affairs Office meetings. We slowly came to realize that the model that we were using for these fairs was a flawed one, based on the concept of the military as a harmful organization that turns out veterans who badly need medical, psychological, and readjustment services. Clearly, this is a negative approach that simply doesn’t take into account the full range of veterans’ experiences.
Later in 2010, on Veterans Day, the LBCC Veterans Club, in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Office, organized a Veterans Celebration Day at the college. Instead of being sequestered in a private area, this event was held in the middle of the quad at the Liberal Arts Campus. Rather than service agencies—although a few were present—this event emphasized the positive. The LBCC radio station provided music and an open mic; an open bar-b-que served all who attended, veteran and veteran supporter alike; display tables were set up and veterans brought their gear and their pictures to display; a retired business professor and Marine, attended in his dress blues, which still fit after nearly 50 years. Many veterans and veteran supporters used the open mic to express their feelings and their support. The food for the BBQ was paid for by the Vet’s Club and by a donation from AmVets. More than 550 meals were served.
Clearly, this was a far different function from the Veterans Service Fair that had been held the previous March. If one were to characterize this later event in terms of a model, perhaps it might be called the celebratory model. It is obvious that this is the more successful model in terms of both veteran turnout and overall institutional participation.
As for what veterans need to become integrated into the college and become successful students, there are two main efforts in which institutions may wish to engage. The first is the social integration that is key to academic retention and success, as postulated by researchers such as Vincent Tinto. This integration can be accomplished by various activities: a strong veterans’ club, a veterans’ resource center, and veterans’ activities that are integrated into the social fabric of the college. The second effort should involve the faculty and staff of the college. As part of his doctoral dissertation, Marshall Thomas, currently the Director of Veterans Affairs at Cal State Long Beach, has developed a 4-hour seminar, similar to Safe Zone training, called VET NET Ally. This seminar, which was conducted at Long Beach City College during a flex day in 2010, helps faculty and staff become aware of what it means to be a veteran and helps them to understand their needs. The VET NET Ally seminar is based on the celebratory model and is beneficial for both student veterans and college faculty and staff. Should you wish to know more about the VET NET Ally seminar, contact Marshall Thomas at: http://www.csulb.edu/divisions/students/veterans_university/.
Perhaps there is one more commonality that all veterans have and that is that they have life experience, discipline, and maturity well beyond other students their age. They are a group that is worthy of support, celebratory support.