For many of the 1,130 veterans enrolled at Texas A&M University, adjusting to college life comes with obstacles vastly different from those encountered by traditional students.
Col. Jerry Smith ’82 USMC (Ret.), director of the System Office of Veteran Services, calls them “unique non-traditional students”: They are about a decade older than the typical 18- to 22-year-old student, nearly half are married, and approximately 38% of student veterans are the first in their families to attend college. Add in the difficulties associated with returning to civilian life after military service — about six years on average — and adjusting to a campus environment, and it’s a grand transition that brings with it its own unique academic challenges, he said Smith.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cited a survey that found 37% of part-time and 16% of full-time students drop out within nine months of enrolling at a higher education institution. Mike Dvoracek, a veteran academic coach at the Academic Success Center, said these are referred to as “stop-outs” — when a non-graduate drops out of class after a semester or doesn’t continue.
But while stopovers for student veterans are common across the country, Dvoracek and Smith say a combination of tools, resources and ongoing support has contributed to Texas A&M’s success in retaining and graduating veterans. Smith said the persistence rate for spring 2022 was 82.7%.
There is no “golden key” that can be held responsible for the university’s success in this area, Smith said. Rather, it is thanks to countless programs, the commitment of colleagues, financial and academic support, and collaboration between offices across campus.
“It’s two different worlds — in the military, the resources to accomplish the mission were pushed into their chain of command,” Smith said. “And then they show up here and everything they need to successfully complete their academic mission is on campus but without the structure. They have to learn what they need and where to find it.”
Providing these resources to students is the mission of the Don & Ellie Knauss Veteran Resource & Support Center (VRSC), of which Smith is also a director. Founded in 2012, the center is dedicated to providing uniquely tailored programs and resources for student veterans and their families. Smith said it’s a holistic approach that focuses on academics, finance, well-being and career goals that begins when a student applies to Texas A&M and ends when they go through the initial stages and will be hired in his new career.
Dvoracek also points to the VRSC’s “apply for the calling” mindset that has helped students stay on track in pursuing their goals.
“Everyone works together. We want to talk to these students before they’re even on campus and see it all through until they get a job,” he said. “It starts with our military admissions team working to get our student veterans into the right major. And then we provide academic and financial support and a peer community. Our partnership with the Career Center also helps them find a job when they leave university.”
The VRSC and Academic Success Center have also worked to identify potential stopovers. Dvoracek said once a student drops out, it’s difficult to determine why. “We’re trying to catch up because we found out afterwards,” he said.
Many times, he said, service members are deployed or activated for missions such as hurricane or COVID-19 responses. These students may intend to return to campus upon completion of their service. Some students may also leave after struggling to transition academically.
Dvoracek said the academic coaching he provides for student veterans at VRSC isn’t very different from the traditional student population: He works with them on note-taking, study strategies, exam preparation, time management, and other tools. For some it has been years since they had formal education. These students could fall behind in class as they try to catch up on subjects they haven’t studied in years, he said.
Smith said veterans also face the challenge of adjusting to a new learning style.
“In the military, it’s very repetitive, memorizing and sort of a checklist,” he said. “Here the professors want you to reflect, think about theory and analyze. It’s very different and they need to make that mental shift in learning style.”
The VRSC also offers resources critical to addressing another potential cause of disruption – finance.
Among the many financial assistance programs are the Aggie Shields Textbook Lending Library, which provides free textbooks to veterans; the SAVE fund, which provides financial support to students in times of crisis or unusual circumstances; and Aggie Rings For Veterans, which Smith said has provided nearly 600 grants to help students pay for their Aggie Rings. These programs are funded in part by donor support, another factor that Smith says plays an important role in the VRSC’s success.
Each part of this broad network of support and services ensures that every student veteran receives the help they need to be successful.
“In the 10 years since the center’s inception, we’ve accomplished more in terms of progression than I ever anticipated,” Smith said. “It’s really changed, and now we’re preserving this campus as the destination of choice for veterans. And the reason for our success is the extensive network we have built with our campus, community and corporate partners.”
Celebrate Veterans Day at Bryan College Station
Veterans Day Ceremony
Friday, November 11 at 5:30 p.m
Veterans Park and Athletic Complex, 3101 Harvey Road, College Station
Visit the Brazos Valley Veterans Memorial website for more information.