Bridging the Gap: Military Life and the Classroom

Bridging the Gap: Military Life and the Classroom

Kathleen Fry

© Wavebreakmediamicro |

© Wavebreakmediamicro |

As veterans return home from war, they are faced with the question of, “What to do next?” Some veterans may have originally entered the Armed Forces not only to serve their country, but to earn benefits to help pay for college. Professors and students may at times overlook or at least fail to consider how beneficial it is to have veterans in the classroom. The goal of this paper is to help bridge the gap between professors, traditional-aged students, and prior-military students, in order to understand and perhaps better appreciate one another in an academic setting.

As an adjunct professor in psychology the past five years, I have had the distinct privilege of educating veterans and their family members. Many have approached me eager to learn more about particular topics and have also shared with me the difficulties they sometime face when working with faculty members. There are times when professors are not sure how to best help student- veterans in need. Barton (2014) describes how it can take several years for a student-vet to transition from military life back to civilian life and emphasizes that higher education is a new environment to transition to for most student-veterans (p. 6). Furthermore Barton (2014) identifies the most significant and influential component to a “smooth” transition is having a “mentor” (p. 1). A professor is often placed in a position that would afford him or her to be an outstanding mentor to any student, especially a veteran. As professors, we need to remind ourselves why we got involved in academia in the first place, which for many of us was to help guide and inspire the bright minds of tomorrow.

It is possible for some veterans feel uncomfortable and out of place in an academic setting, as they are surrounded by more traditional aged-students. Rumann, Rivera, and Hernandez (2011) reported a disconnect between civilians and veterans, due to civilians “inability to relate to the military experiences of veterans” (p. 55). Both veterans and traditional students may have different priorities, as traditional students may focus more on team sports and social activities, whereas veterans may have families at home and hold jobs outside of the classroom. In a classroom pairing traditional students with veteran students in group activities, the opportunity to encourage general discussions is enhanced. Veterans often work(ed) in a team atmosphere in their military roles so group work may offer a comforting familiar opportunity in the classroom.

As adult students, veterans may bring their mature experiences and provide the opportunity for different view-points to thought-provoking discussions. Veterans may also be quieter than others in the classroom, though when called-upon they may share some intriguing thoughts. It is advised though, that professors never put a veteran on the spot and ask about personal experiences regarding the war, as this could make them feel uncomfortable. In teaching clinical psychology, post-traumatic stress disorder is often a topic that is covered. Veterans should not be looked upon to teach the class about this subject. If the professor or another student is curious about a veteran’s perspective or experience, it is best to ask before class and ask permission if he or she would be willing to share small details with the class. Rumann, Rivera, Hernandez (2011) recognize the risk of unusual possibilities; veterans may be asked by civilian students “So did you kill anyone over there?” (p. 55). Civilians “immaturity” and “insensitivity” to veteran’s experiences can lead to devastating effects for veterans (p. 55). To avoid this possibility, traditional college students could be educated on military culture, as part of their new-student orientation.

Whether a professor, student, or civilian it is important to understand and have a general level of social competence on issues of military life and culture. Professors may want to keep in mind that veterans have a background that teaches them to follow orders and live by strict code of discipline, which significantly contributes to their success in the classroom.

Researchers Ackerman, DiRamio, and Mitchell (2009) conducted interviews with combat veterans returning to school and found that students struggle with transitioning from a “strictly defined structure” to one that is more “loosely configured” (p. 8). A student-veteran may respond best to instructions that are direct and to guidelines that specifically outline what is being asked, opposed to assignments that are free-flowing and that allow students to present or write about what is of interest to them. It may be difficult at times for veterans to change from an environment of obeying orders to one that supports autonomous thinking and independent learning. In order to help the transition, a best practice can be to give the student-veterans their assignments in steps and to encourage first year seminars in creative writing.

It is essential that as a society, we begin to bridge the gap between military and civilian culture. Higher education institutions should where possible, strive to create services for student veterans. It was found that out of 723 institutions that participated in a survey, only 57% provided services to student-veterans (Rumann, Rivera, Hernandez, 2011, p. 54). It should be a priority from every university to support veterans and show these students the compassion and respect they deserve.

If everyone “minds the gap” that has formed between our divided cultures, we can begin to work with one another to have a better understanding of each other’s values. As teaching professionals, we can begin in the classroom by encouraging students to speak and learn from one another. Creating a campus that is “veteran-friendly” provides a more comforting and successful transition for student-veterans. Teaching our children from a young age to support veterans may help us to build a culture that allows us to transition from either a civilian or military life to one of solidarity.


Ackerman, R., DiRamio, D., & Mitchell, R.G. (2009). Transitions: Combat veterans as college
students. New Directions for Student Services, 126, 5-14. doi: 10.1002/ss.311
Barton, B.D. (2014). Contextual mentoring of student veterans: A communication perspective
(Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order No. 3615729).
Rumann, C., Rivera, M. and Hernandez, I. (2011). Student veterans and community colleges.
New Directions for Community Colleges, 155, 51–58. doi: 10.1002/cc.457