How to Support Student Veterans
Special thanks to our guest author, Cody Tomblin, the Program Manager for the West Virginia Office of Veterans Education and Training.
I am the Program Manager for the West Virginia Office of Veterans Education and Training. Our office is what is referred to in U.S. Code as a State Approving Agency. We are part of a national association of fellow state approving agencies working to ensure veterans and their dependents have access to high-quality and ethically administered education and training.
I am not a veteran. However, I am, as we all are, indebted to our nation’s brave service members to a degree that can never fully be repaid. For that reason, I consider it a true honor to be able to come to work each day and, in some small way, give back to our veterans.
There are many ways that higher ed staff can support their student veterans. Of course, one way is to help them go to college should they choose to go. Staff can make the transition easier for veterans with timely, personal outreach. One non-intrusive way to do this is through text messages. Simply letting veterans know that they have access to college staff when they need it can help the transition go smoothly for our nation’s veterans.
How to support student veterans through text message outreach
There are five main ways that institutions can support student veterans through text message outreach:
- Be proactive with advising
- Send out early alerts when students show signs of struggling
- Keep students informed on their VA certification status
- Send ongoing alerts to keep students in-the-know
- Follow-up with students and encourage them
To kick off the discussion, below is a visual to show what a semester might look like for veteran students from the point of view of a higher ed staff member.
1. Be proactive with advising
Of course, enrolling in college can be a stressful experience for anyone. The confusion can be endless, just like the questions students often have.
- Which program is right for me?
- Which classes do I need?
- What are pre-requisites?
For veterans, that process comes with additional questions:
- Am I eligible for education benefits?
- What’s the difference between the various chapters of benefits?
- How do I apply?
- What happens after I apply?
Certainly, it’s easy to see how stressful that can be. All of that is, for these men and women, the precursor to actually enrolling in college. After they enroll, they must make sure the program they’re enrolling in is approved for education benefits. Also, they must ensure the classes they take are part of the approved program’s curriculum. Not to mention, these men and women are sometimes in the midst of making the transition from enlisted service members to civilians.
Education and training facilities could help to rid the process of some of those stressors by proactively reaching out to new student veterans. If a student has identified as a veteran on their application, send them a personalized message. Let them know who their school certifying official is on campus. In addition, inform them of any veteran-specific groups and resources available on campus.
2. Send out early alerts when students show signs of struggling
Making the adjustment back to civilian life is not an easy or fast process. It is ongoing and ever-evolving. In some ways, the same is true for adjusting to college. It is, after all, a new place (virtual or otherwise). There are new people – both students and teachers. There’s the need to learn how to balance coursework with day-to-day responsibilities. So, how can schools and training facilities know which students are adjusting well and which may be having a difficult time?
Some schools have warning systems in their student software. For less-well-funded facilities, though, that simply isn’t an option. Traditionally, some staff have waited until after first exams or midterms to reach out to students. That’s simply too late.
Sure, there’s email. Sure, there’s calls. Some students may even drop by the office. But, for students who don’t use any of those options, texting could be truly beneficial. Further, texting can help fill in the gaps between these calls and in-person meetings. Staff can program these messages to send at various times in a student's academic career. For instance, when a student fails an assignment or misses class, staff can program an automated text to check in with the student. Something as simple as a quick “Hey, how are you?” text could make all the difference for someone.
3. Keep students informed on their VA certification status
Of course, students become concerned when they anticipate a payor making a payment. The same is true, perhaps even more so, for veterans. Certain chapters of benefits provide a housing allowance and book stipend in addition to tuition and fee allocation. School certifying officials are flooded with calls, emails, and office visits from VA beneficiaries asking about the status of their enrollment certification. Schools could take the guesswork and worry out of the equation with targeted texting.
In these cases, I would suggest setting up text triggers based on the status of a student’s enrollment certification. Alert them when staff have submitted a certification. Follow-up with them once the VA confirms it is in the queue for processing. Update them if any issues arise which need addressing. Lastly, let them know when the certification has been processed by the VA. By being informed, the student can better plan their finances. These texts could reduce the number of things a veteran student has to juggle, allowing them the opportunity to put more time and attention into their studies.
4. Send ongoing alerts to keep students in-the-know
Making sure students get off to a strong start is a terrific goal. However, that can’t be where a school’s efforts for their students end. After all, students may find that coursework becomes harder as the semester continues. Perhaps a student begins experiencing physical and/or mental health challenges. This isn’t specific to veterans, either.
Anyone who has worked in student services can recite any number of stories they’ve heard from their students. A student’s feeling they have no other option but to drop out because they have to care for a family member who is ill. A student's missing classes or dropping out altogether because they no longer have access to reliable transportation. Whether it be the result of academic, health, or external factors, students who do well early on may not do well as the academic year progresses.
A student may not feel comfortable discussing such issues face-to-face. Similarly, maybe they just don’t have the time for a phone call or an office visit. Chances are, though, that they would appreciate and take a minute to respond to a text. Again, these can be triggered by certain criteria. Personalized texts can be sent to a student whose attendance becomes sporadic or whose grades begin to slip. Let your students know you care. Link them to the appropriate on-campus resources, and, when necessary, to any available community resources. Doing so could go a long way in not only improving their chances of academic success but in improving their overall sense of wellbeing.
5. Follow-up with students and encourage them
As a semester ends, take the opportunity to congratulate students who performed well. Let that student who was struggling but persevered know how proud you are of them and how proud they should be of themselves. For students who failed courses or may have had to withdraw from one or more classes, reach out to them. Let them know what resources are available to them. Encourage them to stick with it. For students who have earned their degrees at the end of a semester, congratulate them. If career services are provided at your particular school, let the student know and urge them to access those valuable resources.
To learn more about how to support student veterans through text outreach, check out some of Signal Vine's relevant use case pages:
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