About one-third of veterans who take advantage of the education benefits offered by the Veterans Affairs Department eventually drop out of college or other training certificate program, often overwhelmed by the challenges faced in transitioning from service member to student.
Now a new study led by a health services researcher at the University of California, Riverside offers a solution: support services led by fellow veterans. The program would not only connect student veterans to resources and healthcare services but also to other veterans who are experiencing the same transition from military to school.
“Peer-led supportive services offer veterans a sense of community and have the potential to increase retention rates and help ensure academic success,” said lead author Ann Cheney, an assistant professor in the Center for Healthy Communities in the School of Medicine.
Cheney explained that many university campuses already have supportive services for students; however, these programs often fail to address the specific needs of veterans. They are neither veteran-initiated nor veteran-led, she said.
“Some veterans are deterred from accessing these services because of values and attitudes promulgated within the military, such as self-reliance and pride,” said Cheney.
The study emphasizes that veteran-led programs help connect students with fellow veterans and veteran faculty members who share military experience.
“Such faculty members can help veteran students transition from the military’s rigid structure to that of a student, which tends to be more self-directed,” Cheney said. “By seeking help from VA and community providers and researchers, campus communities can play a vital role in improving veterans’ overall health and well-being and academic success.”
The study was conducted at six campuses in rural Arkansas. The main goal was to determine the challenges and lessons learned in the first year of a VA/Student Partnership for Rural Veterans project.
To develop veteran-to-veteran services, Cheney and her colleagues appealed to established community advisory boards. They also collaborated with student services, faculty with vested interest in veteran health, and leaders of student veteran organizations.
“Engaging veterans, campus leaders, and community stakeholders in grass-roots efforts to develop peer-led services and resources that are locally tailored to the needs of veterans can result in long-term collaborations and sustainable programs,” Cheney said.
“Supportive services can help veterans transition into higher education and potentially set them up for academic success, but the evidence base still needs to be established. This study leads us one step closer to understanding the value of peer-led services for our most recent generation of veterans.”
Cheney is a medical anthropologist with research experience in mental health and substance use health services. She focuses on health disparities in under-served, primarily rural, populations, including women, veterans, ethnic and racial minorities, and immigrants.
The new findings appear in the fall 2016 issue of Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action.