Embracing the Intersecting Identities of Student Veterans in Higher Education

Written by Jose E. Coll & Eugenia L. Weiss

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More than 2.3 million U.S. service members have been deployed to serve in the Global War on Terrorism. According to National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS, 2012) limitless military personnel and their family and friends have been deleteriously impacted by the longest conflict in U.S. history with an estimated 1.2 million service members having disabilities resulting from combat exposure. Furthermore, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2012), illustrates that during the years 2011-2012, there were 1.1 million military students enrolled in undergraduate education programs.  Ever since the birth of this country, many have served in uniform and sought a positive and rewarding transition back into their civilian communities through higher education and/or the workforce. Many have succeeded while others have not because of combat injuries, which have prevented the attainment of adequate employment or prevented them from successfully completing post-secondary education. Although much has been written about student veterans and transition (Coll & Weiss, 2016; Grandillo & Magee, 2016) there is scarce literature and research on non-citizen soldiers1 in particular the immigrant student veterans and how to best serve a group that holds intersecting identities, both as a military veteran and as an immigrant. 

Since its inception as a nation, the U.S. has welcomed immigrants to serve in its military to protect its independence and Constitution, while at the same time being ambivalent toward foreign-born soldiers, historically denying them individual rights and privileges. Throughout U.S. history these non-citizen soldiers have been denied the right to vote, to own property and to hold public office, but these acts have not curbed their desire and will to serve in uniform. In fact, 20 percent of those awarded the Medal of Honor have been non-citizen soldiers, and in our most recent conflicts, more than 150 Bronze Stars have been awarded to this group.  

The increase in foreign-born persons and the growth of diverse communities within the U.S. has created a source of potential military recruits, which has in turn changed the landscape and composition of the armed services and higher education for that matter. According to One America (2016), between 1999 and 2010 the number of non-citizens serving in the U.S. military was approximately 80,000, representing five percent of the total force, or a ratio of one out of every 20 recruits. It is also estimated that there is a total of 3.4 million students attending higher education who are not naturalized citizens. 

Each of the 80,000 non-citizen soldiers represent a unique worldview, and that individual is then assimilated to a military culture that is comprised of élite values, traditions, norms and perceptions that govern how members of the armed forces think, communicate and interact with each other and with civilians. Though each branch of the military has a unique set of core values, there are unifying qualities across the various divisions of the military, such as honor, courage, loyalty, integrity and commitment. The values of the military serve as the standards of conduct for military personnel and regulate the lives of soldiers on a daily basis. Upon entry into service, military values are aggressively imposed on the soldiers with little consideration regarding their existing cultural values and norms. The military’s indoctrination of their standards of conduct is necessary because members of the armed forces must be ready at all times to be deployed into combat. The shaping of a military worldview becomes the “new normal” as service members become almost exclusively surrounded by those who share a similar experience and this proximity reinforces the beliefs to a point that the service member begins to lose the civilian part of themselves. The shift in identity occurs again later as a veteran attempts to integrate into higher education and into a civilian community, whereby the veteran is challenged once again to assimilate intersecting identities, to include military, immigrant and civilian. As a Latino immigrant veteran (first author), I support and understand the need for the military to impose such an abrasive indoctrination of military core values; however, I struggle with the reality that this acculturation process has chipped away at my own cultural ethnic identity and worldviews.

For Latino/a student veterans this phenomenon has the potential of causing increased isolation as an individual may not adequately meet the social expectations of his or her group of origin and experience cultural and political isolation by holding a mixed identity and/or feeling distant from the military cohort. In the metamorphosis that must occur from soldier to civilian, there is a possibility of experiencing psychological invisibility.  Williams (2013)2 asserts that psychological invisibility is a depersonalization and a sense of being overshadowed by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices created by media and society regarding a specific group, in this case post-war veterans. This psychological phenomenon often plagues our veteran population with subjugation of stigmas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma and traumatic brain injury; and unfortunately, every veteran whether disabled or not will typically be viewed under these assumptions by his/her civilian counterparts.  This crisis may be more damaging than what we think, and Williams states that psychological invisibility may be the catalyst for: isolation, loss of self, depression, lack of trust, lack of attachment and loneliness; adding to the already difficult process of separating from military service. 

To address these concerns, we recommend institutions of higher learning to establish programs that encompass and take into consideration that veterans are not a homogenous group and develop culturally sensitive services that embrace the struggles of identity development, as well as the intersectionality encompassing a myriad of social identities.  Recommended first steps include “The 8 Keys to Success” established by our former president and the U.S. Department of Education. These eight principles in supporting student veterans focus predominantly on environmental factors in post-secondary institutions, such as community, support and coordination of services:

1. “Create a culture of trust and connectedness across the campus community to promote well-being and success for veterans.”

2. “Ensure consistent and sustained support from campus leadership.”

3. “Implement an early alert system to ensure all veterans receive academic, career and financial advice before challenges become overwhelming.”

4. “Coordinate and centralize campus efforts for all veterans, together with the creation of a designated space (even if limited in size).”

5. “Collaborate with local communities and organizations, including government agencies, to align and coordinate various services for veterans.”

6. “Utilize a uniform set of data tools to collect and track information on veterans, including demographics, retention and degree completion.”

7. “Provide comprehensive professional development for faculty and staff on issues and challenges unique to veterans.”

8. “Develop systems that ensure sustainability of effective practices for veterans.”

In theory, these principles provide a helpful compass, however, what these fail to address is how to create support programs that recognize the diversity and unique worldviews of student veterans and more importantly how to establish a dialogue that supports the development of a new worldview post-combat. Simultaneously, the question arises as to how to create inclusive programming and diversity training for staff, faculty and students alike that will address the many facets of cultural sensitivity in all aspects of the university or college environment? The importance of belonging is central to achievement and success for all of our students, regardless of background. First, we need to start with a clear understanding of the multiplicity of social identities and not pigeon hole any group into a stereotype. Thus, the preparation must be two pronged, first in terms of supports for the student veterans and secondly, for the institution to understand its own role and responsibility in arming itself with truly multidimensional approaches to cultural sensitivity training that take into account various social identities that may exist in every individual. 

In our opinion, it is essential that we begin to establish a dialogue of how to support shattered worldviews by enhancing and supporting a safe space for identity development that transcends all existing norms based on ethnic and social assumptions. If universities are committed to success — beyond access and completion — we need to widen our scope. For starters, we can seek to minimize stigmatization by discussing the unique needs and perspectives of the individual student veterans with our community at large, which are impacted by the various cultures, languages, nationalities, gender identities, socio-economic statuses and experiences. Furthermore, we need to develop programs that enhance psychological visibility versus existing models, which appear to be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, as not all veterans are alike as mentioned in this article. Lastly, we need to provide student veterans the opportunity to explore all educational possibilities through culturally appropriate career services and allow them to also choose a liberal arts education if they wish to do so. This would require us to curb our tendency to want to rush them through a degree, as well as require a change in institutional and funding philosophies and policies. Lastly, we conclude with the belief that one of the most fundamental aspects of a liberal arts education is identity development and that this occurs through the incorporation of the core teachings of philosophy, arts, geometry, chemistry, language and history to name a few. In other words, we do not wish to short change our student veterans of the full experience and meaning that a true education can provide. •  

1.  Non-citizen soldiers represent those individuals who are not naturalized citizens serving in the U.S. military, and soldier is used as a general term and not associated with any specific branch of service. 

2.  (L. Williams, personal communication, March 2013; Executive Leadership Academy, University of California, Berkeley)