Onward and Upward Bound: Military Veterans Charge Toward Higher Education

What is the true value of higher education to military veterans? Some military veterans may be underrepresented in higher education due to life adversities including homelessness, medical disabilities, substance abuse, family hardships and deficient academic skills. With the transition of veterans to colleges and universities, Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) projects nationwide provide life transformation through attainment of postsecondary education. Throughout the nation, positive life transformation results from the pursuit and achievement of postsecondary education coupled with VUB support, leadership involvement of colleges and universities, and the integration of services from veteran agencies.
The emergence of military veterans returning to college campuses significantly impacts the ideals of higher education, even though many veterans must overcome personal obstacles to realize academic achievement. Although not exclusively burdened by disabilities or social ills such as drugs, alcohol abuse or homelessness, some veterans find themselves lacking direction after military service without a compass toward successful society involvement. Many have endured personal afflictions and found themselves lacking basic academic skills, thus facing a myriad of societal challenges. Fortunately, federal TRIO Programs’ commitment to higher education continues to support eligible military veterans seeking academic redemption, social inclusion and life transformation.

Military veterans have proven their commitment and sacrifice to the nation. As many veterans seek and use their educational benefits, VUB projects nationwide carry out the unique mission of helping them enroll and succeed in postsecondary education. Military veterans display aspiration for academic achievement because military service increases the goal of higher education attainment. Among the reasons: 1) military organizations encourage higher education among members; 2) military service helps individuals overcome social limitations; and 3) military service establishes independence and self-confidence. VUB projects, then, provide that second opportunity for many deserving veterans. The proud military veterans of the Metropolitan State College (MSCD) VUB, in Denver, Colorado, embody that desire to overcome life challenges and attain higher education. These phenomena, and their life experiences, symbolize an inspirational story of transformative education for the proud MSCD veterans and all marginalized citizens.*

This success story began with TRIO’s progressive journey toward awarding higher education opportunities for underprivileged students. It originated with Upward Bound, which emerged from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in response to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As one of the eight dedicated programs within TRIO, Veterans Upward Bound, established in 1972, addressed the unique population of underprivileged military veterans. The VUB projects nationwide helped military veterans achieve goals of higher education through a course curriculum of preparatory classes such as Science, English, Composition, Reading, Math, and Computer Skills. A foreign language course routinely complements the curriculum. Veterans Upward Bound; therefore, stands as a platform for the aspirations of higher education and its associated benefits while exploring veterans’ aspirations and life enrichment experiences toward achieving higher education.

Military veterans’ life experiences and the quest for higher education examine critical roles in supporting this unique sampling of nontraditional students, while articulating much needed awareness about the sociology of education and its sense of social responsibility to educate society’s vulnerable and underprivileged citizens. This potential crisis is magnified by the huge influx of military veterans returning from wars and conflicts; society benefits from establishing academic programs and designs that help assimilate these veterans via higher education. Many military veterans proved their merit on the battlefield; higher education and projects like MSCD VUB further that purpose by revealing how higher education enhances social and professional standing, self-esteem, and life skills.

The military veterans’ life experiences and personal stories bolster the social importance of achieving higher education and the resulting quality of life impact derived from support programs like VUB. With the emergence of numerous veterans returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, an obvious educational need exists to help assimilate them back into communities, job markets, and society. In keeping with the aspirations and academic dreams of these student veterans, establishment of veteran support groups on campuses is key to guiding them through the critical academic transition. The design and purpose of VUB projects provide a unique opportunity for colleges and universities, via partnership and collaboration, to advance the ideals of higher education. Furthermore, colleges and universities promote equity by meeting the needs of these unique, nontraditional students while challenging them to meet higher expectations through innovation and flexibility in curriculum and programs. These core attributes create the foundation for veteran-friendly campuses and contribute to transformative life experiences during the pursuit of postsecondary education.

Colleges and universities socialize citizens through higher education to develop a moral citizenry that contributes positively to society. VUB projects offer military veterans the opportunity to contribute socially as productive citizens, civically educated and aware of their roles in community and service to society. Furthermore, the ideal role for colleges and universities include promoting “a sense of safety, openness, and trust” that help navigate military veterans away from a “warrior culture” to a new environment on college campuses and a new social identity as student veterans. The responsibility rests with education leaders to build and reinforce this academic infrastructure through a culture of trust and respect, traits that military veterans know very well. A transformation occurs that enables military veterans to become student veterans, one which done successfully places them on a path transforming them from “warriors” to “students.” This new social identity encourages veterans to adapt and overcome challenges on a different kind of battlefield – the classroom – where the main ammunition is books, rather than bullets.

A major implication might examine whether VUB projects actually help transform the lives of student veterans. Yet, findings such as the MSCD VUB continuously reveal that student veteran matriculation is a social benefit resulting in qualitatively transformed lives. VUB projects provide unique opportunities that mitigate potential crises whereby thousands of military veterans returning from conflicts and wars without proper education may become unproductive and troubled citizens – society’s problem. Higher education has a role to play in society’s social agenda through life transformation and education of this unique population, thereby, contributing to an improved society.

Nationwide, political and education leaders, and VUB projects can gain valuable insight from student veterans’ campus life experiences. These life experiences express critical lessons learned in the areas of student – faculty relationships, assimilation on campus, and academic and specialized support services for successful matriculation.

Establishing support programs is a proactive, veteran friendly approach that contributes to the student veterans’ transition and well-being. Within the student veteran population, a subset of veterans with medical disabilities ranging from PTSD to amputees is another unique challenge. This unique subset presents a special opportunity for school administrators and leaders to establish special programs and coordinate support with local veteran agencies.

Consistent with the social purpose and mission of classical Upward Bound programs, VUB projects steer military veterans away from pedestrian or ill-fated lifestyles to improved quality of life outcomes and positive contribution to society through higher education. To ensure continued awareness and progress, stakeholders must participate in critical decision-making to facilitate successful VUB projects. The stakeholders include political and education leaders at national and local levels, and supporting veteran agencies. The social need exists in every corner of society for these proud military veterans who sacrifice for freedom and the democratic way of life. Military veterans voluntarily commit to serving the nation; the nation must now commit to serving its veterans – remuneration for underrepresented military veterans seeking improved quality of life through higher education.

Undoubtedly, student veterans contribute positively to classrooms and campuses nationwide. Colleges and universities’ commitment to construct inclusive and systematic processes will increase the chance of success and positive quality of life outcomes for veterans. These systematic processes may involve Student Clubs with student veteran inclusion and leadership; special committees designed to work with student veterans and affiliated veteran support agencies; and special support services for student veterans enduring medical disabilities. Integrated agencies like the VA hospitals, Veteran Service Centers, and Workforce Centers can play a vital role in identifying disadvantaged military veterans and channeling them to appropriate support agencies.

The social cost benefit of educating military veterans is a beacon that enhances the ideals of higher education while conjoining VUB projects, colleges, and universities toward a common social end. This approach requires a national mandate that every state in the union establishes at least one VUB project at a public college or university. These choices illustrate “social rationality” involving reasoned choices that maintain and improve valued social institutions. Higher education is a valued institution in our society whereby VUB projects, colleges and universities make a rational social choice to educate our veteran heroes while maintaining the ideals of higher education and positive societal benefit for all citizens.

* Author’s note: The focus of my doctoral research centered around the student veterans of the Metropolitan State College (MSCD) VUB project in Denver, Colorado. Living and working in Denver, with the support of my academic research committee, I was able to engage an eager sample of participants that were readily available for personal interviews. Therefore, the study was primarily limited to the life experiences of military veterans seeking life transformation and postsecondary education at the MCSD VUB project in Denver, with broader implications of 48 VUB projects operating nationally. My external documentary research of national VUB organizations and other colleges and universities revealed that student testimonials were similar in social scope and transformation linked to the pursuit of higher education. In other words, VUB projects like MSCD VUB were changing, enhancing, and saving lives across the country. My final research recommendations noted that future research can unearth other rich tapestries of the student veteran’s life experience and transformation at colleges and universities nationwide.

Reginald Stewart served 20 years of active duty service in the U.S. Army Medical Department. He is currently employed as a healthcare acquisition professional with the Veterans Health Administration.


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