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Research on the Identity Development of Student Veterans, Transitioned to Higher Education

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Post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) resulting from traumatic military experiences is linked to anxiety, anger, and guilt in returning veterans, and may make academics especially difficult. A report in Psychological Trauma: Theory Research, Practice and Policy, examined data from a large, national sample of students seeking mental health services while enrolled in college. The data came from a network of more than 500 college and university counseling centers housed at Penn State. The findings showed that for all groups, military-related PTSI was associated with higher levels of family distress, lower support from friends, and from acquaintances; in turn, this causes greater academic dysfunction.

PTSI in the college setting, is comprised of 60% men and at least 50% womem. From this population approximately 8% of men and 20% of women will develop PTSI; for example, such PTSI stressors would include; violent human assault, natural catastrophes, accidents, deliberate man-made disasters. Ultimately, this leads to the veteran suffering from recurrent thoughts of the event, flashbacks/nightmares, emotional numbness (“it don’t matter”); reduced interest or involvement in work or outside activities, intense guilt or worry/anxiety, angry outburst and irritability, feeling “on edge”, hyperarousal/hyper-alertness, and avoidance of thoughts/situations that remind the person of that trauma. These unique stressors can lead to the veteran’s failure to adapt, by having potential consequences; such as, becoming self-destructive and participating in dangerous behaviors. This has a dramatic impact on colleges and universities throughout the United States; in fact, we are seeing increasing numbers of veteran’s taking advantage of Government issued educational benefits. However, we must take a deeper look into understanding why veteran’s that suffer from PTSI transition into higher education. The answer to this question may be within a research report that details a phenomenological study documenting identity development in student veterans making the transition from military service to higher education. An analysis that illustrates how student veterans construct and achieve more complex sense of self. Incorporating experiences from being a service member, veteran, and civilian into a coherent identity. With this in mind, and based on available literature, we need to understand the motivating factor between the issue of resilience in relation to trauma and posttraumatic injury. Understing that, resilient coping to extreme stress and trauma is a multifaceted phenomenon characterized as a complex repertoire of behavioral tendencies. Research has shown that peer connections and support are vital for early student success and that college and universities should make veterans services more readily available, especially at institutions with a high veteran presence.

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A key research study that was used to help describe and understand the identity development of student veterans as they transitioned from active duty service members to student at higher educational systems; this study was phenomenological in nature and focused on three individual, veteran, full time students completing their first undergraduate degree at a proprietary university in the southwest United States during the fall semester of 2011. Three students were interviewed with several common themes emerging over the course of this study; the first interview was with Patrice who left the military because she wanted to earn a college degree. Although she did not associate exclusively with student veterans on campus, she expressed difficulty understanding the lives of non-veterans students. She stated civilians complained all the time, about trial things, and found them to have a nonchalant attitude about homework, studying, and school in general.

The second interview Scott was a Naval Veteran who joined the service in 1988 and served as a radio man on the USS Alaska, a ballistic missile submarine based, out of Bangor Washington and the third was Bakari, who joined the Florida National Guard in 1999, and wanted to join the military because he wanted to try something different.This method was chosen because of its in-depth interview nature and the focus on participants lived experiences and worldviews. Service members have detailed life experiences that are often not understood by non-veterans. Because of the time limitations involved in the project, interviewing a large number of participants was not feasible, since the study focused on student identity development. It was essential to obtain detailed descriptions of the participants first hand. The requirement for the study for prior military service was critical and that had some significant distance between the initial transition periods from their end of active service to their role as college students. (Cite this location). This method was better able to describe the adjustment process as well as these difficulties encountered from their first days on campus to the approach of their final exams, graduation, and ultimately, their identity beyond both “student” and “veteran”.

A key element within Scott’s interview was when asked about why he joined the service. He replied, “Because it seemed to be the right thing to do.” Shortly after re-enlisting he suffered from a knee injury that made him no longer eligible to work onboard a submarine. So, rather than heading to the surface fleet he accepted a medical discharge. Shortly after his discharge, Scott enrolled in a local community college because, due to his knee injury, work was becoming difficult to come by. Even though, he never complete a degree he did begin work in the health and fitness industry where he found his experience, and previous therapy for his knee in college, he started looking into a more formalized career in medical injury, but one that would take as much time to complete feeling as though non-veteran students were more concerned with partying while he actively wanted to participate in the educational experience. Nevertheless, Scott was concerned about the amount of military men and women that were coming back from Iraq and did not feel as though colleges and universities where prepared for this larger influx of veterans returning from war. He saw this increase as adding to the unemployment rate and the need for veteran’s services, but hoped man of them would choose to attend college and this would have a positive effect on their return to civilian society. The scientific study of resilience is a relatively new area of investigation. This research has expanded its focus to include survivors of stress trauma across the lifespan. This entire field is starting to feel a paradigm shift as it has begun to focus on ways to assess and foster strengths and personal growth in the face of trauma and life adversity.

Resilience has been defined as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat”; a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event; the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten the viability, the function, or the development of that system; the process to harness resources to sustain well-being; enhanced psychobiological capacity to modulate the stress response; and reintegration of self that includes a conscious effort to move forward in an insightful integrated positive manner as a result of an adverse experience. All of these definitions involve the process of adapting to and bouncing back from adversity.

Discussion on Resilience

Resilience is not a simple or static construct an individual may be resilient in one domain, but not in the other. The construct of resilience is also relevant among families; however, it is important to recognize that the main determinants of resilience are in one individual. There really is not one agreed upon measurement of resilience; however, the most commonly used is the Conner-Davidson Resilience Scale, a 25 item self-report measure that assesses hardiness, personal competence, tolerance of negative affect, acceptance of change, personal control, and spirituality. Additionally, a broad range of psychosocial factors have been associated with resilience. Some of the factors that have received the greatest support from the research include positive emotion and optimism, active problem focused coping, moral courage and altruism, attention to physical health and fitness, capacity to regulate emotions, cognitive flexibility, religiosity/spirituality, high level of positive social support and commitment to a valued and meaningful cause, purpose or mission.

A great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that believing in and honoring a personal moral/ethical code can facilitate resilience when these codes are challenged. The capacity to regulate emotions has an enormous impact on stress reactivity. While negative emotions can be adaptive in some circumstances, it left unchecked they can dramatically increase physiological reactivity and impair executive function, such as rational decision making. High levels of social support have been associated with better outcomes after a variety of traumas (e.g. combat, child abuse) and when better overall psychological and physical health among transitioning Veterans into a college environment. It is possible that this type of social support can foster even more reliance from that individual by demerging physiological response to stress, stimulating the resilience oxytocin that is known to reduce fear, increase self-confidence, and fostering active rather passive approaches to solving problems. Most individuals are resilient and able to successfully deal with a wide range of life stressors and traumas. In fact, Masten (2001) coined the term “ordinary magic” to point out that resilience is not rare. Humans are empowered with natural protective systems that help them adapt to change and adversity. However, in order for those protective systems to develop and operate affectively, individuals need basic social and material resources, and ideally, healthy family and community environments. My interest in studying this particular subject stems from my own personal experience as a student veteran who transitioned later in my life.

Student Veterans are often a group in conflict with itself. This is not meant to stereotype military veterans, or reduce what is a very complex group of individuals into a generic mass for ease of categorization. Rather, it is a general statement that those who ended their military service are leaving more than just a job; they are leave ng a way of looking at themselves in the work, and all that entails, good and bad. Student veterans will often undergo simultaneous work, individual, and relationship transitions because of the combination of identity roles, functions, environments they are involved in, and the resilience to get it done. However, future research on student veteran’s experience in higher education is critical due to the acute shortage of information on this emergent student demographic.

Currently military deployments are winding down, and force projection levels are predicting to drop the lowest in the past fifty years. These will invariable lead to a dramatic increase in student veteran presence on campuses around the country, campuses that remain woefully unprepared for the fathoming influx. As more military veterans enter higher education, and those who suffer from PTSI, these opportunities for research should be the key importance to higher education researchers and student affair professionals into the future. Veterans represent a potential resource for colleges and universities. The have leadership experiences and confronted difficult challenges, challenges that have matured and, perhaps, hardened them. Many joined the military to earn educational benefits so that they could realize the opportunities available to them in higher education. With approximately 20 percent of service personal returning from Iraq report mental health problems; some studies put that figure of returning veterans who have received mental health or psychosocial diagnosis at over 30 percent. The Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health (2007) suggests that 27 percent of returning veterans report significant depression, 24 percent report alcohol abuse issues, and 43 percent reports problems with anger. It is time for campuses to be prepared for the needs of those veterans who would benefit from mental health support services; in addition, to their academic needs.

“Further research shows that faculty, staff, and administrators at institutions of higher learning have a fundamental responsibility to create a safe and effective learning environment for returning military combat veterans. Studies of student veterans have shown that combat veterans have both unique strengths and barriers that must be taken into account if they are to complete an advanced degree.” And “Serious social problems can emerge if the educational needs of this at-risk student population are unaddressed. Social change will come as a result of scaffolding student veterans through a successful journey toward their desired goals. This process will enrich the lives of this population by opening the door to better jobs, higher pay, and a higher quality of life for both the student and his or her family.”


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