The Importance of Student Veteran Belonging
Over the past summer, we spoke with institutional and organizational leaders committed to supporting student veterans in higher education, and in every conversation, we heard about the importance of belonging to student veteran success. Many of these administrators and leaders observed that today’s student veterans are not who most faculty members, administrators, and other students think they are. For more than a decade, the image of the typical student veteran was shaped by the public image of combatants returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, more commonly known as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. In our conversations, campus leaders said that one of the most pervasive and pernicious stereotypes that campus stakeholders have about student veterans is that they all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD continues to loom large in the American imagination as it is both a very real consequence of military service for some veterans and also an all-too-easy stereotype about anyone with military experience.
Today’s student veterans are not who most faculty members, administrators, and other students think they are.
To the degree that current and recently enrolled student veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were in fact living with PTSD, the administrators and leaders who support student veterans now say that stereotype is outdated and even more erroneous. As active combat missions wound down in both countries, the veteran population, and therefore the student veteran population, began shifting from combat veterans to non-combat veterans. Several of the leaders we spoke with, who are themselves veterans, emphasized that this is an important distinction within the veteran community. The public often sees active combat as a quintessential element of the military experience, so some non-combat veterans may feel ambivalence about their identities as veterans or that their military experience lacks authenticity.
This dissonance, the gap between their individual military experience and the public perception of military experience, can manifest in student veterans as imposter syndrome, a nagging feeling that one does not deserve something they have earned despite evidence to the contrary. At the core of imposter syndrome are internal questions and doubts about belonging in a particular role or setting. This sentiment likely results from the implicit and sometimes explicit “hierarchy of combat elitism” that privileges those with direct combat experience. For student veterans, these feelings about their veteran status may compound feelings of inadequacy about their academic abilities or questions about their qualifications for admission. The confluence of these twin challenges puts today’s student veteran at risk of stopping or dropping out of college despite being quite well-qualified to be there.
There are various mindsets, reflections, and activities offered to help student veterans overcome imposter syndrome, including the academic boot camps offered by the Warrior-Scholar Project, which past participants note helped alleviate their imposter syndrome. Interventions like these are mostly targeted at only one dimension of a student veteran’s identity, as a veteran or as a student, or are generically aimed at imposter syndrome as part of the human condition. While such resources may be useful, more research should be done to understand how the intersectional identities student veterans hold impact their experience of imposter syndrome. With those insights in hand, institutions and other supporting organizations can begin to design and evaluate policies and programs that can promote genuine belonging and mitigate this seemingly inevitable obstacle to success.