Within the veteran population, women are the fastest growing group (National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics [NCVAS], 2016). As the roles and responsibilities of women in the military grow, the state of Virginia has not only seen an increase in women veterans, but also women veterans with disabilities. How to best meet the needs of this population as they transition to civilian student life is rooted in understanding how they conceptualize their identity as veterans, females, and individuals with disabilities in the context of higher education.
In the summer of 2019, 10 semi-structured interviews were conducted with women veteran students with disabilities. These participants represented two colleges in two different regions of Virginia, with 7 of the 10 being from one university. The remaining 3 students attended a community college, with one in the process of transferring to another university. All participants were informed of the opportunity to interview through their college’s military student services office.
The interviews were conducted in preparation for a 3-year grant-funded study focused on utilizing cognitive support technology for women veteran students with traumatic brain and/or spinal cord injuries. Future participants will receive individualized case management and personalized iPads with apps specifically selected to assist them in academic and employment areas. The goal of conducting these interviews was to prepare staff to be informed, enable them to interact empathetically, and identify resources that may be frequently used or requested by future participants.
A semi-structured interview with 13 open-ended questions was designed to capture the basic experience of women veterans with disabilities who were enrolled in higher education. The questions focused on background college information, awareness and utilization of college services including military student services, student disability services and career services, and their experiences of separating from the military and transitioning to college (see Appendix).
Interviews were conducted in person or over the phone depending on the participant’s availability or preference, and the length of interview time ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours. All interviews were conducted by the same individual who also completed interview transcription. During the interviews, the interviewer took notes and read back written responses to confirm that the interviewee’s comments and thoughts had been accurately recorded. Interviews were recorded with the participant’s oral consent for transcription purposes. Once transcribed, all audio recordings were erased to maintain participant confidentiality. A thematic content analysis of all interview transcriptions was conducted by two project staff, one of which was the original interviewer. The second research staff analyzed the interview transcripts separately. These two project staff met to discuss individual analysis, confirm agreement, and identify common themes that emerged.
Five total themes were identified:
Three initial descriptive codes: culture, life experience, and college, were consolidated into the theme cultural differences as these codes predominantly focused on the cultural divide participants often experienced compared to their college peers. These differences were often rooted in different life experiences, being older, behavior and attitude in college spaces, and often contrasted with their military experience.
Military identity emerged as a theme based on consistent descriptions of how participants’ military experience was formative to their central identity and perspective. Even participants who openly discussed a dislike of being in the military still associated most with their veteran identity compared to that of being a college student or an individual with a disability. The theme bureaucracy is closely interlaced with the theme of military identity. Bureaucracy was discussed and described when participants shared their experiences navigating the Veteran Affairs (VA) office and VA education benefits. Participants tended to learn in a discordant fashion what services were available to them.
The female experience developed from some pointed interview questions on the unique needs of women veterans. Discussion typically centered on either how participants had adapted to a predominantly male culture in the military or how they would like to have more supports for women veterans, and not just general veteran support. The final theme, disability influence, emerged from conversations about specific disability accommodations, access or awareness of disability accommodation services, and behaviors affected by anxiety and trauma. Some interview notes were double coded for female experience and disability influence because, though only one participant openly disclosed military sexual trauma, much of the discussion of anxiety and behavior modifications to address anxiety were intertwined with discussion about female vulnerability.
Schlossberg’s (1981) Transition model is frequently used as a theoretical framework to analyze a student veteran’s transition from active duty military to civilian student (Flink, 2017; Jenner, 2017; Pellegrino & Hoggan, 2015). Its analytical value lies in the fact that Schlossberg does not explore transition only in terms of age and life stage, but transitions triggered by events, and four contributing factors to transition (situation, self, supports, and strategies). Jenner (2017) points out that a shortcoming of this analytic lens is its emphasis on individual action, which can overlook institutional influences. This is especially true for women student veterans with disabilities, who may be recontextualizing their reality both in terms of gender norms and disability status on top of their newly founded student status. Furthermore, Jenner (2017) points out that student veterans may be undergoing multiple transitions simultaneously. Not only are they moving from a military to civilian culture, they are also transitioning from a professional role to that of a student. The content analysis of these structured interviews underscores the need to consider identity and institutional forces during transitional periods, especially when the transitional period is associated with education. It is estimated that 73% of separating service members plan to use their GI educational benefits (Kirchner, 2015).
The five themes that emerged from the analysis reveal how salient different aspects of identity are for women student veterans with disabilities, and the need to conduct further research on veteran sub-groups to develop appropriate supports for individuals whose identities lay at the intersection of many categories. Strong et al. (2018) show that availability or lack of gender-specific policies and services can have a direct impact on the success of women veteran reintegration. Women veterans can be described as an invisible population where existing services directed towards male veterans are insufficient or do not address their specific needs. Jenner’s (2017) review and integration of existing literature on student veterans demonstrates the need to recognize differences and subgroups within student veterans and reject any generalization of a student veteran experience.
Frequently, participants described feeling out of step with their civilian college peers. This theme encompassed participants’ expectations and experiences that ran counter to their military training, resulting in conflicted feelings or even anger and frustration. The gulf described by participants may explain why even participants who had not fit in or enjoyed their military experience were more inclined to associate with other student veterans or college staff.
The divide in the experience and understanding between civilian students and student veterans often left participants hesitant to even disclose their veteran status. Often this hesitancy was based on a fear of stigmatization. One participant shared, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing issues with civilian friends because they just assume it’s all of us. Assume all veterans have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and start conversations I don’t feel like having.” This fear of disclosure is not unfounded given that though public support of veterans has increased over the years, there is still a public stigma related to military service that focuses on misunderstood concepts of mental illness (Rodrigues et al., 2014). For example, the estimates of veterans with PTSD varies from 14% (Kirchner, 2015) to 44% (Campbell & Riggs, 2015) for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. However, Kirchner (2015) estimates that the public perception of the rate of veterans with PTSD is far higher. This of course can have a highly negative and stigmatizing effect on student veterans (Rudstam et al., 2012).
Another participant similarly shared that she prefers to “blend in” but also that she felt emboldened and relieved “when I’m in a class and find other veterans in the class.” For her, that camaraderie was important if she wanted to speak up and voice a political opinion that ran counter to the liberal mindset she felt most students and professors had. “We respect a more liberal opinion than what we have, but when we speak it’s held against us including nonverbals. Makes me feel like I should be more in the middle of what I say…restricting my voice and only participate when I need to in order to get the participation points.” Such cultural clashes or poor social support have been identified as barriers to successful community reintegration of women veterans (Hawkins & Crowe, 2017).
The cultural divide between veterans and college peers was so great that even participants who disliked their military experience relied heavily on other student veterans. One participant described being,
So unhappy when I was in [the military] for the last two years. So the first year I was out I was just so happy. In the last 6 months it’s hit me how hard it is to find my place, to make friends. Even in a college setting…I think it’s hard socially the most. Socially is the place where I’ve had a hard time. You are at this weird moment in your life. “I’m too old to do this, but I’m too young to give up.”
When asked to describe what services she utilized in school this participant was effusive about how much her college’s military student services office had helped her navigate student finances and academic advising. She also detailed how its role as a de facto gathering place of other student veterans allowed her to use their collective knowledge to assist her with other aspects of college life, like course selection and campus navigation. For her, the value of finding a trusted resource was essential to her college success, “I don’t know what I would have done without them. I probably would have left school and just waited until I went somewhere else, if they hadn’t helped me.”
The experiences of these two veterans underscores the conclusions drawn by Blackwell-Starnes (2018) that peer groups, especially ones with shared nontraditional college experiences, can help student veterans increase their academic participation. For example, one participant shared how in addition to services aimed at veterans, she took advantage of a program aimed at assisting first generation and nontraditional students to access tutoring and mentorship.
From a policy perspective, consideration should be given to how best accommodate student veterans and other nontraditional students on college campuses. For these students, their educational trajectories differ from traditional students in that their academic career has been interrupted by employment, careers, and possibly family commitments. One participant described her transition from her military career to education as, “[it felt] like I was in a profession [and now I was] back to a school setting.” They are not grappling with the same type of identity formation and experimentation as their college aged peers and may instead be reconceptualizing their identity entirely (Jenner, 2017). One idea college campuses may consider would include how to accommodate spaces for student veterans or nontraditional students. In multiple interviews, participants shared a disdain for how college students acted or flouted rules in college spaces. To them, the antics of their college peers were often described as rude or inconsiderate. These sentiments echo what Jones (2013) observed when describing how the classroom atmosphere and student actions kept student veterans from connecting and developing relationships with classroom peers.
Across the board, participants shared that finding quiet campus spaces gave them both a reprieve from their peers and a place to re-center when anxious. The most common locations included the library and military student services offices. Furthermore, the library itself was often cited as a service that helped participants in their academic career. To many, the fact that the library and librarians were there to help all students allowed them to get individualized assistance and instruction on doing a research paper without needing to disclose their veteran status or seek out services geared specifically to veterans.
The emergence of cultural differences as a theme underscores the need to acknowledge student veterans’ military identity and to design policies to support their identity as one would design policies to support students of different cultural backgrounds.
The stories participants shared about the difficulty they had connecting to typical college peers underscores the concept of multiple dimensions of identity or intersecting identities. Though they are enrolled in college and attending classes like their peers, they may have more differences than similarities. Their identity as college students is layered with their identity as veterans. Ackerman et al. (2009) theorize that a military identity becomes a core part of an individual’s view of self and it is difficult if not impossible to shed that identity. Many participants shared ways in which their current actions and approach to academics have been shaped by their military experience. As one participant eloquently put it, “veterans don’t go to college to find themselves, they go to create their next story.” This perspective grounds the idea that student veterans are not simply trading their military persona for that of a college student and reinforces the need to recognize that student veterans are different from traditional students. Student veterans likely do not see their college experience as a time to experiment and will need different types of support (Jenner, 2017). A common refrain from multiple interviews was the difficulty of transitioning from a highly structured and punctual culture to one that was more relaxed and flexible. One participant quipped that you always knew who the other veterans in class were because they were the ones who showed up to class early, sometimes even before the instructor. For many, the lack of preparedness of other students or even instructors were difficult to work with as they were used to routine. Another participant shared that one of the hardest parts of her transition was setting her own schedule. She described the setting of her daily schedule as a managerial process, but the execution of her tasks as being in operational mode, similar to when she was active duty.
In the military everything is set—where to go, what to wear, when to be there. When you transition to a student, there is no structure and trying to figure out the balance of what you need to do, when to be there, managing coursework— plus the job on the side. The difficult part is managing. It’s just as challenging to be a student because you are always learning so you are also always in operational mode and they are right on top of each other.
There were also distinct social codes that differed between college and the military that many found hard to reconcile. One participant shared that she had to “start speaking like a civilian again…Don’t just call people by their last name all the time.” She also shared that her instinct was to sit in the back of the class in order to survey her surroundings, but the impression she got was that good students sit in the front.
It is important for colleges and universities to take such observations shared by participants seriously when planning how to best accommodate and reach their student veterans. It is necessary to view student veterans as their own cultural group and to plan policies on how to best support these students. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the value of co-identity organizations for nontraditional college students (Jenner, 2017) and how student veterans in particular benefit from veteran service organizations (Hawkins & Crowe, 2017; Flink, 2017; Jenner, 2017; Russell & Russell, 2018). For example, perhaps student veterans would benefit from academic counseling geared specifically towards this population, peer support programs, and clearer communication about available resources and services. When asked about other services on campus, none had taken advantage of career services and only three were working with their campus’s student disability services office. One participant shared that she was actively unlearning what she had been taught in the military in order to seek out services to address mental health and emotional issues. “Mind-body connection gets disrupted during military experience. You have to ignore what your body is telling you. Get it done and accept your lot. Embrace the suck.” For this participant, she had to recalibrate to her new normal and realize that she did not have to continue to “embrace the suck” and that it could and should be better. The sentiments of “embrace the suck” were echoed by another participant who described the idea of transferring to another school as “…more challenging, but I would make it through, I would be fine eventually. Eventually you adapt.” Another participant who had not taken advantage of student disability support services yet, but knew about the office, described her thought process thusly:
There are support services I have not taken advantage of, maybe because I don’t want to take advantage of the system but I think I will. I feel like I could power through and then you think about it and realize it’s there for a reason. No harm in asking for it, if you have real diagnosis, which I do.
Failing to acknowledge that student veterans are less likely to seek out services, or need validation making connections to service providers, means that colleges and universities will continue to see low interaction and utilization by student veterans. This could lead to high attrition rates and poor academic performance for student veterans. One means of increasing participation may be to reduce or elucidate the bureaucracy that student veterans often feel stands between them and the care or services they need. Bureaucracy, real or perceived, can seem an insurmountable obstacle.
Bureaucracy emerged as a theme during analysis mostly through conversations about VA services, benefits, and ancillary services. A universal feeling from all participants was the difficulty of accessing VA benefits. The majority of our participants attended one university and positively described their experience with that university’s military student services. If anything, most participants shared that the military student services office was crucial in helping them navigate the process of accessing VA education benefits. Accessing VA education benefits can present a significant bureaucratic challenge to many veterans (Ackerman et al., 2009; Jenner, 2017). These challenges create an additional barrier to successful transition. Furthermore, VA education benefits are often the financial support keeping student veterans enrolled, and failure or difficulty accessing them could lead to student veteran attrition (Ackerman et al., 2009; Jenner, 2017). Having a military student services office on campus mitigated the bureaucratic challenge of accessing educational benefits for most of the participants interviewed.
However, the military student services office did not mitigate the challenges of accessing other VA benefits. One participant shared how she had put off medical appointments because there was a 4 month wait to schedule one, and as a student she never knew what her schedule would be 4 months from now. Another participant shared that she always plans on calling when she needs anything from the VA. Her experience has been that the websites aren’t intuitive and it takes forever. This participant described the process as, “always 15 steps you don’t know about.” Another participant similarly shared, “when I consider trying to reach out to the VA, I get anxious knowing that it’s going to be such a pain that I procrastinate.” Though accessing these services are not directly related to education, it should be acknowledged that the cognitive strain associated with completing these tasks may impact student participation or at the very least be atypical experiences of most college students.
Despite the challenges, experienced or anticipated, of wading through bureaucratic hoops to access services, proximity to a VA hospital was one of the leading reasons participants gave for choosing a specific school or location to settle down. In a way, the VA was almost described as a necessary inconvenience. One participant was afraid that her future academic and career goals would be limited by her need to be within a “decent distance” of the VA hospital where she goes for most of her medical care. Another participant was hoping to relocate to Nashville partly because she was already familiar with the VA hospital there.
College and university campuses should consider having student veteran offices or organizations not only because they assist with educational bureaucracy, but because they become natural spaces for student veterans to find peer supports and gain social capital. Existing student veteran organizations can go one step further to create networks and build relationships with other veteran services, but also with nonveteran services from which veterans can benefit. To this point, one participant mentioned being surprised by what services were available to her. These relationships could reduce the bureaucratic anxiety that prevent veterans from learning about and using available services.
As previously discussed, colleges and universities may benefit from viewing student veterans as having more in common with other nontraditional students. The age range of participants varied and so did their family status. Unlike most traditional college-aged students, many of the participants interviewed were engaged or married. At least one participant mentioned fertility treatments and family planning. In contrast, one participant explicitly stated that she was having a hard time getting an appointment at the VA to fill her birth control prescription. Awareness of women-specific services is an issue. Washington et al. (2011) revealed that many veterans did not know they had a right to request women-specific services from the VA.
Another participant openly talked about her child and how her need to secure childcare often prevented her from participating in college activities or services like tutoring. Furthermore, she pointed out that the housing allowance did not cover everything, and definitely not childcare expenses. This potential oversight draws attention to the fact that veteran benefits were originally designed for male veterans, either childless or with an expectation that a partner would be available for childcare. Women veterans tend to be younger than male veterans (NCVAS, 2016) and may have fertility and childcare concerns that are not relevant to their male counterparts. In line with these findings, Pellegrino and Hoggan (2015) interviewed two women veterans who also shared that their experiences as students were complicated by motherhood. In addition to childcare, finding time to complete schoolwork while balancing family responsibilities was extremely difficult.
When asked about specific gaps in services for women veterans, a few shared that though there were veteran support groups, they wished that there were women-specific groups. “I would love to see something just for female veterans, somewhere we could go and talk. Sexual harassment and things we have gone through; and good to have female bonding to share our experiences.” Another participant shared that though she thought civilian society was more progressive in terms of discussing sexual harassment and counseling, which made it easier to discuss than in the military, she still wished that she had a mentor to talk to. Similarly, another participant shared that she would be “starting therapy soon and that is one thing I’m realizing is that I’m not alone.” This same participant did go on to share that she was the only woman who did her job, so she acted more masculine in the military. Since separating, she did “have to tone it down a little” and has since realized that in the military, “we get desensitized to sexism and men being men…in the military, a lot of the men were foul mouth and inappropriate.” Access to an informal support group of women veterans could confer mental and emotional well-being. Strong identification, more so than participation, with veteran support organizations may offer counseling like benefits by tapping into a sense of personal belonging and meaningfulness (Russell & Russell, 2018). Women-specific veteran groups on campus may offer women veteran students a space that provides more comfort and safety than an all-inclusive veteran group, especially if a woman veteran has been the victim of military sexual trauma.
Conforming to civilian gender expectations was frequently discussed by other participants. One participant described having to watch the “sternness in [my] voice; had to soften and become more friendly.” Another shared that she was, “still figuring out what is my learned professionalism and what is detrimentally masculine behavior that I see as the right way.” A third described it as “[you] have to be louder and more aggressive in the military to be heard, so there is a switch in how you act between the civilian world compared to the military.” One participant did share what she felt was a negative gender related experience as a civilian. In the military, she felt that rank rather than gender was a determining factor and there was transparency about pay and bonuses. As a civilian student she recently applied for a position along with a male classmate. Though both were offered the position, she learned later that her male classmate was offered an additional $10,000 signing bonus she was not made aware of until she asked.
In nearly all the interviews, trauma was hinted or directly discussed. “A lot of us come from some type of trauma. Almost all of women veterans; can’t slap us on the back, we’ll hit you back.” Many participants described not feeling comfortable walking around campus at night or feeling anxiety about being in large crowded classrooms. One participant described how she felt like she had “no bubble.” To her, she had gone from a small community where she shared confined spaces to thinking she would have her bubble back, only to realize that she is now elbow-to-elbow with strangers in a lecture hall. Flexible scheduling of classes with multiple class times would be one way to accommodate women veteran students. A participant shared that she knew a fellow woman veteran who had to drop her classes because she could not handle walking on campus at night.
When discussing her anxiety and panic attacks, one participant shared an oversight she observed in veteran related counseling. She discovered that if the counseling was not related to PTSD, then there was not much counseling available. Here available services again are based on a model focused on male clients with combat experience. Compared to their male counterparts, women veterans are more likely to have depression, musculoskeletal injuries, and to have experienced traumatic events (Hawkins & Crowe, 2017).
In these interviews, participants were not asked to disclose their disability. Instead participants were asked to share if their disability has impacted their education and whether they took advantage of disability services on campus. All but two students shared that their disability had affected their education in some way or another. One of these two students specified that they did not believe their disability affected their education because of where they had chosen to go to school but acknowledged it might be harder at another college. For two participants, the medical aspect of their disability was the biggest concern. Related to the earlier theme of bureaucracy, scheduling medical appointments and surgeries around classes was a primary concern. For the remaining six participants, they disclosed disability issues related to anxiety and depression. These issues were exacerbated by going from a very structured environment to having almost no structure at all. This is not surprising, considering that the transition from military to civilian world offers new choices and freedoms that can result in confusion and frustration (Flink, 2017). However, only three participants took advantage of student disability support services. The reasons for declining disability support services ranged from not knowing about them or not knowing who to contact, to reasons like “testing accommodations would make me feel like I was cheating” or “just trying to be normal.” Groah et al. (2017) similarly found that disability support services were the least likely on-campus service to be utilized by student veterans with disabilities. Fifteen percent of their surveyed student veterans were unsure about how to access them.
Though these participants were open about having a disability, their identity of being a person with a disability was second to their identity as a woman veteran. In the study of intersectional identity, it is not uncommon for individuals to “perceive some dimensions of their identities as less salient, at different times and under differing circumstances” (Abes et al., 2007, p. 18). Conversations about disability supports were typically limited and those that did discuss their disability in more detail, couched it in the context of their veteran or female experience. For example, one participant who used disability support services discussed at length how she needed to unlearn the military mindset of not seeking out help. Echoing the earlier finding that veterans desired quiet spaces on college campuses, the three participants who used disability support services were all grateful for the ability to take their tests in a separate quiet room. Two participants shared that though their disability accommodations gave them extra testing time, they rarely needed extra time. “Funny thing is, I don’t need the time but knowing that I have the time decreases my anxiety and I’m relaxed enough to finish it.”
If college and university campuses want to encourage student veterans to take advantage of services, they will need to consider appealing to their primary veteran identity. Four participants were not familiar with student disability support services, did not think they would be eligible, or did not know what they offered. Two participants were aware of services but had not taken advantage of them. One acknowledged that she wished she had but was still fighting the instinct to “power through.” Another participant revealed throughout her interview that having a trusted resource was essential for her. Knowing about services would not be enough, she was “more likely [to] follow up on given information” if it came from another veteran. The need to identify trusted resources aligns with research that women veterans can have difficulty trusting other people because of past events and experiences (Hawkins & Crowe, 2017).
Results from the structured interviews provide insight into perceptions and experiences of women veteran students. These veterans shared similar views as their male veteran counterparts concerning their military identity, which is central to their identity more than being an individual with a disability or a student (Groah et al., 2017). As a result, student veterans experience feelings of not fitting in with their college peers, difficulty transitioning from the highly structured military world to the less structured civilian world, and coping with their disabilities having an impact on their education options.
Yet, there are unique experiences of women veterans that warrant further research and practice to meet the needs of this rapidly increasing population within the military. What is at issue is that women veterans have similarities with their male counterparts as they transition from the military to civilian student life, yet they remain an invisible population where a majority of the services and supports available are designed for male veterans. Participants touched on several of their support needs that are unique to women veterans. These veterans tend to be younger and therefore are juggling childcare responsibilities that can limit their ability to participate in campus activities or services. They also discussed dealing with trauma experienced in the military that affects their feelings of safety on campus, especially being in evening classes. The need for flexible class scheduling and creation of quiet spaces on campus to assist women student veterans are just initial steps to addressing their needs.
There is an increasing emphasis on student engagement across colleges and universities that include strategies to help students in their academic planning and completion of program requirements, learning communities, and peer-to-peer support (McCormick et al., 2011). Within this context of student engagement, it is critical that colleges and universities examine their approaches to strengthen the supports and services to assist in the engagement and retention of women student veterans. Establishing women peer-to-peer supports and assisting women veterans to have representation in military student affairs offices on campus can help women veterans to establish trusted resources that participants expressed were so important to them. Future research is needed to identify evidenced-based practices to strengthen the supports and services unique to women student veterans to assist in the engagement and retention of these students.
This publication is supported (in part) by Contract # A262-80330 from the Commonwealth Neurotrauma Initiative (CNI) Trust Fund administered by the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). The contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CNI Trust Fund or DARS.
Survey Interview Questions.
|1||Where do you go to college? How did you decide which college to attend?|
|2||Are you a full or part time student?|
|3||What is your major? How did you decide what to major in?|
|4||Has your disability impacted your education options? If so, how?|
|5||Do you use disability support services on campus? Why or why not?|
|6||Do you use military student services on campus? Why or why not?|
|7||Do you use career services on campus? Why or why not?|
|8||If you use more than one service, which do you find most helpful and why?|
|9||Have you noticed any gaps in services? If so, please describe.|
|10||Do you have a job? If so, please describe what you do.|
|11||How would you describe your transition from the military to postsecondary education? What was difficult? What was easy?|
|12||What do you think are the unique needs of women veterans and service members in postsecondary education? Are you receiving services to meet the unique needs of women veterans?|
|13||What are your career goals? Do you think you will have the resources and support you need to achieve your goals? Why or why not?|
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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