The challenges and needs of veterans are complex and not always easy to identify and address, but one effective way to understand their needs is to start with the basics: Let them talk to each other and listen. This is precisely what a core group of staff and faculty at West Valley College did when “the best laid plans of mice and men” went astray. Not unlike other community colleges, West Valley College had high hopes of obtaining federal grants to attract veterans to the campus and pursue post-secondary education. The College had plans to have enough resources to provide a host of academic support services for veterans, but even the best of plans do not always materialize. When the grand plans had to be deferred and funds became increasingly scarce, caring staff and faculty did a few small things in great ways and made a huge difference to 100 veterans.
Little things that mean a lot
“It’s the little things that mean a lot.” How often have we heard this? In many ways, in spite of the large scale efforts to implement new initiatives with hopes of making big impacts, we can’t lose sight of the little things that mean a lot. This sentiment rang true for West Valley College (WVC) when faced with big plans and no funds to develop a veterans program. Many veterans in this region consider themselves part of the “working poor” trying to stay afloat in difficult economic times, but determined nevertheless to make a better life. A small group of veterans who recently separated from active duty have found their home at West Valley College located in Saratoga, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, 50 miles south of San Francisco. WVC certifies an average of 100 veterans each academic year, and the vast majority served in the Marines (50%) and the Army (37.5%). Over 83% are full-time students and approximately 16.7% are enrolled part-time.
In spite of their good intentions to attend college, use their GI Bill and secure a degree, they come to college with numerous social and cultural adjustment issues. These issues often hit them full throttle as soon as they enroll. Even more challenging is that when they arrive on campus, they are immediately introduced to “the dance.” Some of them flee as soon as they hear the many steps they have to take. At WVC we call this dance the “West Valley shuffle.”
Accessing services on campus is challenging at best. Unlike other colleges, WVC does not have a One-Stop Student Services Center. Students must learn to navigate their own way through the complex matriculation process, which has been reduced to the “sink or swim” process. Those who can “swim” generally survive their first year, but many “sink” in their first semester. Although the college is located in a beautiful park-like setting spanning over 150 acres, the terrain of the college is very challenging, particularly for disabled students. Student service departments are located in various areas, requiring students to dance the WVC shuffle from place to place.
Compounding this challenge, veterans come to West Valley with numerous problems: these include physical and emotional disabilities, alcohol/substance abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and readjustment issues, financial problems and unemployment. Some lack self-esteem, and many are underprepared for college and need remediation. Military deployments, particularly to combat zones, significantly change a person’s life. The deployment often involves the severe loss of many ordinary comforts generally taken for granted such as access to a variety of good meals, comfortable living conditions, rest and recreation, and most of all, loss of every-day contact with family and friends. Many veterans may have experienced the constant threat of loss of life or injury, and may have witnessed deaths and destruction; thus, once they return home, they may feel isolated from mainstream values (source: Veterans Administration; WVC focus group, 2012). Some veterans may use alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. Providing self-awareness workshops and maintaining a safe and comfortable environment where veterans can meet and talk with other veterans help diminish feelings of isolation and readjustment issues. This is what our veterans told us and we began to listen.
Getting Information and Research
Similarly to other college personnel across the state, many of our college faculty and staff were—and in many ways—are still unaware of the special needs of veterans. A common instructional classroom strategy has been to group veterans with traditional students who may have nothing in common with veterans. The intent is to help veterans assimilate to mainstream culture as quickly as possible. However, the major barrier that most veterans encounter is adjustment to civilian life. Additionally, as students, they must also adapt to the college culture. Their perception of college is that “there are too many complicated steps” (WVC Focus group, Feb 2012). Unfortunately, this has been proven to be true in many cases because of limited college resources and staff to assist them. There is also the continual need for staff and faculty to understand veteran issues including PTSD, social, personal, and family stress.
In doing our research and talking to experts in the field, we discovered that in spite of the fact that there are 9,622 female veterans within the region, the number of female veterans attending college is exceedingly low. For example, at our district, only an average of 7 female veterans attended West Valley and Mission Colleges each year within the last three years. While women veterans are not as outspoken about their experience and on the surface appear to be adjusting well, according to current research articles and experts in the field, women veterans report feeling isolated from their civilian friends and they commonly express the need for peer support that can only come from other veterans—especially other women veterans who have an understanding of their experience. “Accessing such support is difficult; many more men share the experience of being a veteran” (Foster, California’s Women Veterans: Challenges & Needs, March 29, 2010, California Research Bureau).
Because there are so few women veterans at West Valley, we didn’t always acknowledge their service like we did the male veterans. We realized that most of them refrained from joining campus activities or groups because they thought the general student population would have negative reactions to women in the military. “I think some women (civilian) think I joined the military to either hook up with guys or because I was a loser in the civilian world” (WVC Focus group, Feb. 2012).
Understanding our Veteran Population
The staff at the Veterans Centers in San Jose and Santa Cruz informed us that while many veterans deal successfully with stress, all too often veterans have significant coping problems. Unfortunately, substance abuse has become a misguided strategy for coping. PTSD symptoms usually start after the traumatic event, but they may not surface until months or years late, and the symptoms may come and go. According to the California Research Bureau (CRB), “women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD and they typically experience PTSD symptoms and endure a longer course of illness than their male counterparts” (Foster, CRB, California’s Women Veterans: Challenges & Needs, March 29, 2010). Most male and female soldiers and Marines enrolled at West Valley College are Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraq Freedom (O.E.F/O.IF) veterans and most of them are experiencing some type of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Because of the critical need to address PTSD, the College worked with the local VA office to make regular visits to WVC and sign up veterans for consultation appointments. Also, West Valley College is fortunate enough to have the support of the on-campus Mental Health Advisory Committee which was established in 2007. The committee members are committed to supporting veterans as well as all students. Recently, West Valley applied for and received the Mental Health Initiative grant to provide education and training to faculty, staff and students, and to build on the integrated clinical and mental health care and referral efforts through the College’s Health Services. Staff and faculty have taken part in training and will be able to confidently refer veterans to seek treatment for PTSD and other psychological problems. WVC also formed a Veterans Task Force. They meet regularly to share current information about veterans, plan activities, bring to the campus professionals and local military personnel who can work with veterans, and above all, to listen to veterans who contribute greatly to the rich dialogue.
What Veterans Want—4 important things we learned
1. A “Dragnet” approach to college orientation: “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” They want to know just the basics—how to get their Veterans Educational Plan done, identify the counselors who can work with veterans, information about their benefits, where to get help, how to use the student portal, and how to register for classes.
2. Tutoring services—the check-in and check-out approach in a lab setting is least preferred. The location and atmosphere where tutoring is conducted are most important. Since they have limited time to trek across the sprawling campus, they want tutoring available in or near a central location—especially in a place of their own.
3. They lack timely and accurate information about veterans’ benefits. A vast majority of veterans have relied on their peers to get information and it is not always accurate. They want to have staff knowledgeable about veterans’ benefits to present information in a place designated for them and be available for scheduled appointments.
4. They want to be heard and seen, but don’t push the envelope. Keep it basic. Letting them talk in groups is best and should be done in the company of other veterans.
Most of all they wanted A Place of their Own
Veterans wanted a place they could call their own, a home base for them while on campus. While the evolution of the Veterans Resource Center at West Valley College was definitely low key and not news-worthy, looking back, one can truly say it was indeed noteworthy in its organic nature. No one actually laid out a plan and discussions were always in hushed tones since no one really had permission to do it. Knowing full well that often, “no good deed goes unpunished,” no one wanted to be singled out as the leader. It just happened in the small back room the size of a closet in the “temporary” building that had been the home of several Student Services programs for four decades. One day someone brought in a microwave. Next, someone said some bagels and coffee would be nice; then another person brought in a worn but functional sofa from home, and it blossomed from there. Veterans slowly gravitated to the makeshift “center” and they began doing their homework there, asking for help with registration, and talking with each other and with staff who stopped by.
Then a miracle happened. The notion of a home base for veterans took root and flourished. Recently, West Valley College established an “official” Veterans Resource Center—though still small—it is much bigger and more comfortable than the closet in the “temporary” forty-year old portal. The new location is in the completely renovated silver LEED certified Campus Center, and it has become the hub for support group meetings and workshops. Gone are the worn sofa and makeshift work stations. There are computers and printers for veterans to use for free, a refrigerator that is always stocked with snacks, a microwave around the corner, a flat screen television, comfortable new chairs and tables, and their center is decorated tastefully with a patriotic theme. But this isn’t enough. It’s really about the people—the staff who care. They are the ones who do small things in great ways and make a difference. There is no budget for snacks and no faculty reassigned time to take care of the Center. It just happens. Just as it happened years before in the back room of the forty-year old portable building, somehow the refrigerator is still magically stocked with snacks, paper for the printer and cartridge replaced, busy staff and counselors somehow volunteer to present workshops or facilitate group meetings, the veterans online newsletter is published without without fuss, and no one wants to be singled out as being the leader or organizer. It is a pure example of the old fashion notion of “let’s get down to basics and roll up our sleeves to help.” It is collaboration at its finest.
Foster, Lisa. “California’s Women Veterans: Challenges and Needs.” CRB Briefly Stated (March 29, 2010). Online. California Research Bureau. 11 Jul. 2012.
Focus Group Discussion. West Valley College, Saratoga, CA. 13 Feb. 2012.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. URL:http://www.va.gov. 23 Jul. 2012