Military Students on Campus: Budget-Friendly Strategies to Support Student Vets

August 27, 2013

College is the new front for many veterans.  As waves of women and men in uniform return home, they often find the transition from combat to college to be challenging.

Fortunately,  an increasing number of military students are finding staunch allies on campuses around the country.

Dr. Jose Coll, Director of Veteran Student Services at St. Leo University in St. Leo Florida, is one of those allies.

A U.S. Marine, social worker and educator, Coll’s passion is to advocate, support & serve student vets from admission to graduation and beyond.  His goal is to see every higher education institution  in the nation nix the “veteran friendly” metaphor and become a true “veteran supportive” environment.

Coll has first-hand knowledge of the challenges of transitioning from one way of life to another.  Fleeing Cuba in 1980 at age eight as part of the Mariel Boatlift, the first American he encountered on Key West was a Marine.  The impact of that moment triggered his own desire to join the Marine Corps.

Coll served with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company at Camp Pendleton where he supervised combat parachuting operations and training.  Career military was the path ahead of him.

Unexpectedly, a tragic accident cut his active duty career short when he broke his back during a training exercise.  His dream of dedicating his life to serving his country as a Marine was over.

However,  little did Coll know that his next transition as a student veteran at St. Leo’s would lead him on a career path that would allow him to serve his country and his fellow veterans over and above what he would have ever dared to dream if he stayed in active duty.

After earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a doctorate in counseling, education and supervision, Coll went on to develop the country’s first military social work program and launched the first Veterans Services Program at the University of Southern California. 

With Coll at the helm, St. Leo is known as one of America’s largest and most committed providers of higher education to the armed forces.  Over 15% of the student body – more than 4,500 active duty military and veterans – attend St. Leo. 

However, Coll knows that most colleges and universities don’t have such a large percentage of student vets on campus and/or the luxuryor the money to invest  in staffing & establishing a stand-alone veterans center on campus for the vets that are enrolled.

“The reality is that in most institutions, less than one percent of the student body  are veterans,” Coll said.  “We  cannot realistically tell them to go and invest and establish a veteran’s center and hire a full-time staff. “In fact”,  he said, “a large percentage of returning vets are enrolling in community colleges or rural institutions where the percentage of student vets is very, very small.”

Coll said colleges & universities should re-think how to serve their student veteran population.  “You don’t need an enormous amount of money to support, serve and connect with your student vets on campus,” he said. “The solution is how can we utilize what we already have to serve those who have served our country.’”

According to Coll, there are budget-friendly protocols that will allow colleges and universities  to support student vets, prepare them for academic success and see them graduate. 

1.  Enlist the Help of  Faculty Veterans

Coll said institutions should develop an opportunity for faculty who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces to participate in discussions and mentor veteran students with the challenges of meeting academic expectations, time management, and balancing academic life with other responsibilities.

2.  Understand the Veteran Experience

Active duty military personnel and veterans enrolling in our nation’s colleges and universities have fought  for our freedom and have served our country well,” Coll said.  It’s important, he said, that colleges and universities respect that by developing training programs that educate staff members on basic acronyms and military culture. Not only does this show respect, but it is also helps an institution serve its students.

3.  Develop Military Partnerships

Higher education institutions should attempt to develop partnerships with local non-profits and VA facilities such as Vet Centers, which provide outreach and resources to veterans, Coll said. “VA personnel will come on campus once or twice a week and provide a wide range of services and resource to both students and faculty,” he said.

4. Student Veteran Counseling & Advising – Utilize What You Have

In addition to promoting the critical role that faculty veterans can play in mentoring veteran students, campus  academic advisors & counselors can set aside specific days to meet with student vets .  “The added benefit is to have an opportunity to build a relationship with the college’s counseling staff,” Coll said.  “Student veterans are adopting a new identity when they transition to higher education.  They find themselves in an environment where governance is shared instead of being a structured hierarchy.  They’re wondering, ‘How do I study?  How can I prepare myself for civilian life on campus?  How do I balance school and life?’”

Jose Coll, PH.D. is associate professor of social work and director of Veteran Student Services at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida and served in the United States Marine Corps.

Dr. Coll has presented two live-event webinars on student veterans for Higher Ed Hero, a leading producer of higher education webinars.  Higher Ed Hero provides the most comprehensive and reliable resources for higher education professionals in the nation. 

Review Dr. Coll’s webinars as well as our past recorded events “on demand” in the “Higher Ed Hero Webinars” box on the right. 

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