Supporting Military-Connected Students: Thoughts from a Military Spouse and College Instructor
Supporting military-connected students in higher education informs best practices for faculty creating equity-based learning in their classroom. Finding ways to provide support attune to the needs of the military community aligns with basic educational goals; simply helping each learner thrive and succeed. As an instructor of higher education for the last decade, and a military spouse for even longer, I have my foot in both worlds if you will and I applaud all efforts to bridge the gap that can exist between these two communities. I can attest to the efforts educators make in accommodating their students both in and out of the classroom. The military-connected student will not ask for special treatment but deserves recognition and appreciation of the obstacles and challenges they may face. As faculty members, we have the unique opportunity to provide support in overcoming those adversities. How so? Well, let us talk about best practices for bolstering the educational needs of this population.
To begin, what defines a military-connected student? You may at once think of those students on your campus who are currently serving on active duty and pursuing their degrees. Expanding your definition, however, will help you reach more members of this unique group; consider the military spouse, the child of the military family, the members of the US Reserve, the US National Guard, and veterans. Together, these students bring varying depths of ability, skills, and experiences to the benefit of both their institution of higher education and your classroom.
Once aware of the differing roles military-connected students hold, let us consider the adversities the lifestyle naturally brings. Keep in mind that just as with any subset of a population, these examples will not ring true for every member of said group. Military-connected students are as diverse as any other demographic. It is worth considering these exceptional circumstances, however, when examining areas for assistance. Military-connected students may face:
- Frequent moves or changes in residence
- Deployments or Temporary Duty Assignments (within United States and overseas)
- Lack of access to campus resources
- Technology connectivity issues due to remote or overseas locations
- Lack of opportunities for internships due to remote or overseas locations
- Parental figures deployed or often away from home
- Difficulties navigating specialized forms of financial aids such as the G.I. bill or tuition assistance
- Elevated levels of stress due to demanding job requirements or exposure to high pressure/traumatic situations
Individuals in our community deserve collaborative efforts to address these types of obstacles. Consider the student living in a deployed location, going out each day making life or death decisions, doing work to sustain peace with global partners, working longer than normal shifts in less than perfect conditions and returning to their computers at night to log on to your course. How might you offer help? Or think about the military spouse continuing their education who begin their master's program as part of a two-parent household, only to become a single parent when their spouse deploys. Then, they are required to relocate to a new duty station and move that household across the country, all the while maintaining the GPA it takes to continue with their studies and receive access to financial aid. How could you help them succeed? Or what about the student sitting in your back row who has moved every 2-3 years of his life and faced multiple deployments of their parent? What life experiences might you acknowledge that he can bring to your course? The life of a military-connected student is complicated by factors many faculty members may not understand, but we can certainly arm ourselves with awareness and understanding to make sure we reach those minds.
Higher education is evolving. Colleges and universities across the globe are seeking ways to retain students using collaborated efforts to address specific needs. Military-connected students may not want to self-identify, they may not wear a uniform, or broadcast their service, but you can bet they'd like tailored support for the specific struggles they face. Best practices for providing aid follow the same ideas instructors use for engaging all of our students. To begin:
Identify demographics: When you understand the make-up of the students in your course you better your inclusion efforts. We can't help situations we aren't aware of, so consider including statements on your syllabi to ask for voluntary identification of military-connected learners. Even a statement as simple as, "If you are currently serving, have served or are affiliated with the military, and are interested in support or resources please contact me" will be effective.
Observe needs: As educators, we are trained to watch for students falling behind, missing assignments, or showing behaviors indicating difficulties. Observe those needs with your military-connected students as well. Is connectivity an issue? Are extenuating circumstances affecting the ability to meet deadlines? Keep a flexible and open mind as to what factors may be involved so that you can supply proper assistance.
Offer resources: Familiarize yourself with the resources available to military-connected students on your campus. Does the registrar have specialized help for military members? Does the financial aid office have a trained representative? Student Affairs? Mental health? You don't have to be an expert, but being aware of what services are offered is helpful preparation.
Advocate for support: If your school or organization serves many members of the military community or very few, advocate for resources. Engage with faculty and administration to see what is offered for our military community. You may be the spark needed to ignite an important conversation about serving an underserved population.
As educators we are asked to give increasingly of ourselves, but I can attest that giving to our military students is incredibly beneficial. In return for community specific support, you get highly skilled, resilient students with global perspectives and applicable skill sets that greatly impact your classroom and your school. Military-connected students are an asset not only to our nation but to the organizations in which they belong and together we can encourage and strengthen their contributions.