College Admissions Decoded

Finding and Supporting Veteran Students on Campus

Episode Notes

In today’s episode, we talk about meeting veteran students where they are and how to best support them on their college journey. Veterans come from a range of backgrounds. These students bring a lot to a college campus—as well as their own unique challenges in the application process. We will discuss  the crucial elements in finding these applicants, how to create a healthy veteran community at college, and how to ensure their success in higher education. 

Guests: Veronica Peña, Director of the Houston Admissions Center at University of Texas at Austin and Ian Todd, a veteran who went through the application process and studied at Rhodes College. Moderated by Eddie Pickett, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions and Director of Recruitment at Pomona College.

Episode Transcription

Eddie Pickett: Hello and welcome to the College Admissions Decoded Podcast, an occasional series from the National Association for College Admission Counseling or NACAC. NACAC is an association of more than 26,000 professionals at high schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations, as well as independent counselors who support and advise students and families through the college admissions process.

I'm your host, Eddie Pickett, and my pronouns are he, him and his. I'm a NACAC board member and a senior associate Dean of Admissions and the director of recruitment at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

I'm joined today by two amazing individuals who have a great deal of experience counseling students who are considering a military career or are veterans who have left military service. First, I'm joined by Veronica Peña, who's a director of Houston Admissions Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Hello, Veronica.

Veronica Peña: Hi. Thanks so much for having me here today, Eddie.

Eddie Pickett: Thank you for joining us. We also have Ian Todd. Ian is a veteran who went through the process of applying to universities after serving in Iraq. He went on to attend Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee and the University of Houston. Hello, Ian.

Ian Todd: Hello. Thanks for inviting me.

Eddie Pickett: Thank you for joining us, and most importantly, thank you for your service. I've been looking forward to this conversation to think about the different perspectives that people are bringing into the community from all walks of life.

Today, we're going to have some good conversation, some good questions hopefully, and just hear some different perspectives that we don't always get to hear. I think I want to start with Ian. So Ian, can you speak from the personal perspective of how you benefit the classroom environment and what you've taken from it as a veteran?

Ian Todd: Certainly. So as a student veteran, you've come to the classroom a little older, a little wiser, a little more experienced in the world than some of our colleagues that are 18 just coming out of high school. Your life experiences have been different. Whether you served in combat or you were stationed in service stateside, you have spent quite a bit of time serving your country and learning about different things that you then bring to your classroom experience. One of the things that I found for me personally that was the most beneficial for my undergraduate experience was a deepening of soul.

Eddie Pickett: Ooh, I like that. Explain.

Ian Todd: For me, I came to the classroom, I had just come out of Iraq and we had been fighting in 2004, and it was a very violent time, and I'd spent a lot of time questioning what we were doing. We were young, we were kids. Going through classwork, especially our curriculum, we had a developmental curriculum that focused on the foundations of our philosophy and religion, really got me a chance to look at what I truly believed in and what I wanted to do with my life following my service.

It led me eventually to a career in nonprofit leadership in working with a lot of the Memphis nonprofits, so I attribute that to my class studies. So, it wasn't just what I brought to the classroom, but what the classroom brought to me.

Eddie Pickett: You could speak that one again. “...What the classroom brought to me.”I like that. I'm going to use that on somebody, I'm telling you. I'll turn the next one over to Veronica. So, can you talk about what are the contributions of veterans in the classroom, and also in just the overall student population?

Veronica Peña: Yeah, so I think bringing a lot of leadership to the table is very impactful for student populations on a college campus. Oftentimes that first-time student joining the classroom is straight from high school and possibly they're just learning what they're interested in doing. They have no idea, but your veteran students come in with knowing more so what it is they want to accomplish. They have leadership behind them as well.

Some of them are learning how to manage their time a little bit differently. However, oftentimes your veteran students are very committed and they're also very prompt. So they're going to meet your deadlines, they're going to ensure everything's getting submitted, but I think leadership's going to be that key attribute that they're bringing to our college campuses.

Also, like Ian mentioned, veterans are coming from all walks of life when they enter our college campus. Oftentimes they're coming a little bit older as adults, however, they're bringing just a lot to the table, a lot to the classroom as well.

Eddie Pickett: You talk about all walks of life, and I like that thought. So as a black man myself, I was asked in college what's the black perspective? Which is a rude question number one, but also, I can't speak for everybody, we all have different perspectives.

So, thinking about veterans and we often lump them all into one group, and so can we talk about the diversity of veterans? So, life experience, the different branches, just anything you think of in that space to differentiate veterans from just one group.

Ian Todd: So, I have a funny experience that might possibly relate to that. When I reached my fourth year senior studies, I was excited to be taking some senior classes in philosophy on Foucault. My professor decided since I was enrolled, that she would change the curriculum to be philosophy in a time of terror, and we would dissect that since I would be a subject matter expert.

That was the most awkward I've ever felt to where I just panicked and said, "No, I don't want to sit here and debate my experience with a bunch of people who weren't there who don't know." That was shocking to me, and she couldn't understand, because she thought she was doing it to speak to me, but it really didn't. I did not want to have a debate, a philosophical debate about things I couldn't change. So, I guess in that sense it put me on a spot, and I think that might possibly relate to that.

But when it comes to actual veterans, we are a tribe on campus. The Student Veterans of America is a great organization. I highly recommend any colleges and universities listening to adopt a chapter. It's a great program that supports your student veterans and they will gather together, because when it comes to civilians versus veterans, we're all one.

But within that tribe, there are so many voices, there's so many experiences, so many dialects. Navy speaks one way, Army speaks another. Even within the Army, you can tell whether they were at Bragg or if they were over at Fort Hood. There's experience in Afghanistan versus an experience in maybe Dubai. There's just a wide range of experiences that brings us all together, but at the same time all different.

I think that's one of the things that we actually bring to campus is an appreciation of diversity, because in the military, the funny quote you've probably seen in Hollywood would be we're all equally worthless, but that's emphasized pretty heavily in your initial training and it stays with us, you become your own tribe. I think it's important for the student veterans to have a place where they can commune with their tribe, but at the same time, each of them is a little bit different in their experiences.

Eddie Pickett: You talk about that community aspect there. Thinking about the different communities and getting them to these college campuses and opening up these opportunities we work, a lot of us work in admissions or counseling, and so where are some good places to engage with the military and veteran community to recruit and gain applicants?

Veronica Peña: Some great places to really go and captivate and reach some veteran students or even active military members, it's going to be at military bases. I think that's a great place. Typically, every military base has some sort of educational meeting area within their premises, and so going and setting up a table as you would at a high school, go and do that, so you can talk with the current military members who might be transitioning soon out of the military to become a veteran.

They also might have some prospective students of their own that are in high school that might be looking at your colleges too, so also giving information sessions. I know working at UT Austin, sometimes I have current active military members overseas that are reaching out asking about their next steps once they leave the military. So, giving some virtual information sessions online is also a great way to just be able to reach some folks that are overseas and be flexible with those timeframes, right?

Ian Todd: Yeah, to Veronica's point, going to the bases and finding these active-duty veterans or soldiers is the best place to find students that are going to be high quality and ambitious and goal-oriented. As Veronica noted, they have transition centers that you could set up a table and that you could meet with veterans and find out what they need and where they're going, and really recruit that cream of the crop that's trying to find a future for themselves.

Eddie Pickett: What are some of the hurdles that veterans see in the admissions process? We'll start with Veronica for that one.

Veronica Peña: I feel like a lot of universities, they have those rankings out there that say so-and-so made this ranking for helping and supporting veterans on their campus, but when you really look at it, I feel like a lot of universities are missing a lot of opportunity to help support veterans or active military students as they're transitioning to their college campuses.

I think it starts where that gatekeeper of being in admissions and that enrollment management part of it. So, thinking about what are you waiving for your veterans as they're applying to your institutions? Are you making them submit an application fee? Or do you have a program or a process that your veterans are getting their fees waived?

Thinking about, do you even have an admissions representative that is very knowledgeable about what a veteran is going through as they're applying to the process? So, what items do they need, if they're trying to complete the GI Bill, what kind of documentation is needed for that?

When you're thinking about transfer credit for veterans, if they are coming in with any college credit, is your university accepting that credit and how transparent are you being on your admissions websites to indicate that transferable credit? So, really thinking about how are you supporting those veterans? Are they going to have to retake a whole lot of courses, because you are not accepting what they have? Are you having conversations with them before they get to your institutions to say, this is what credit we do take and this is what we do not take, and are you being very transparent? I think those are different ways that we can help our veteran students as they're applying to our institutions.

Ian Todd: I applied for college three times. The first time I had all the different schools, 10, 15 of them, plus all the fees related to that and had selected large state universities and small teaching colleges. Quite a few, mostly in the Southern United States near home. But then when stop loss happened, when the war broke out, we had just canceled all plans and go. At the time, I didn't really know how to follow up with that process or to figure out how to get the money back. I'd say probably I spent a little over $1,000 applying to different schools throughout the process, and that was definitely a big hurdle.

Now, I will say to Veronica's point, not all veterans are looking for that deepening of soul, a lot of them are very pragmatic about their approach. Where can I go to get the degree fast? That means how many credits are you going to give me towards my experience? A lot of them come with great experience. Some of them have been working in military hospitals with more hands-on experience than most of our nurses coming out with a bachelor of science in nursing. A lot of them have technical training or they have a lot of interpersonal skills that they've been developing over four or five years. Where do they get the credit for that?

Because it's an opportunity cost going to college, right? That's four years that you're not making income. They will oftentimes choose something that is going to be the shortest path for them to make more money for their family, and so that can be part of the selection sequence. So, really understanding what they're trying to accomplish with their college experience is important.

Eddie Pickett: We've kind of dropped a couple of nuggets in these spaces, and so thinking about the financial piece, but also just these organizations that are helping. So help is both money, but also people and time. What are some of the organizations that you consider teaming up with to strengthen relationships with veteran student recruitment?

Veronica Peña: The Posse Foundation is one. A lot of us know the Posse Foundation working with prospective high school students, but they also have a military program to engage with veterans and get them on your college campuses, and of course that does come with some scholarship money, which is always helpful.

The Warrior Scholars Program is another organization that works with universities across the nation, oftentimes a lot of smaller liberal arts colleges to provide workshops for veterans to learn about the application process and kind of work on their essays and resume, but then that's also a potential opportunity to recruit students.

So those are two organizations on a national level I think are really great, but there's also a lot of local organizations. Here in the Houston area that I'm currently in, the Combined Arms is another organization, and I know Ian can talk a little bit more, because he's actually helped start some of those programs here in Houston.

Ian Todd: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. So, when we first got out, we were in Lone Star Veterans Association, which was basically like a little fraternity for veterans. We were together, but we really didn't know where we're going, we were just trying to support each other. It developed into a full-fledged program with Combined Arms in 2016, and that is this online database that when you arrive in the Houston area and has now grown to several larger cities.

But when you arrive, you sign in and it starts talking about what kind of needs you have and sorts you into different non-profits to get you plugged into those nonprofits that can help you with those needs. Whether it's housing or if it's help with your family or help with healthcare or psychology, kind of getting counseling and things.

But one of the big ones that I actually got to champion was our education committee. So, we got a lot of the local colleges in this Southeast Texas region to come together and start creating the sorting process to get veterans into the right institution that fits them based on their needs and what families or other constraints they may have to find the right institution that fits them.

Eddie Pickett: So now that we've connected all these resources and these people, we also have to pay for college. So, can you tell us a little bit about the GI Bill and just financing for veterans in general?

Veronica Peña: Absolutely. So, the GI Bill was introduced back in 1943 as a part of President Roosevelt's presidential term. So, that was really meant to assist military members with transitioning to civilian life after returning from deployment and provide assistance towards a higher education. So, the GI Bill has been around for quite some time. However, it has changed for the good and for the bad over the last few years.

Ian Todd: Yeah, definitely. When I went to school, it was on the old Montgomery GI Bill, which had been somewhat lacking in funding. I would say that the GI Bill at that time only paid for about $15,000 a year, so that left me to find different ways to make up the other costs. I think that's a great thing is that college shows you these different opportunities and it does make you think on your feet.

The biggest thing I would say now though is that when you saw in 2009 when they expanded the GI Bill back to that World War II status where it pays for everything, including housing, which allows veterans to be very focused, is A, they go full-time. We all know that living on campus and going full-time is one of the big indicators or two big indicators of student success and that student veterans are able to do that.

Two, many student veterans are going to be first generation students, which means that they need a lot of guidance. They're not going to have parents or role models to pioneer for them, and so they're going to be out there trying to do it on their own. A lot of times we adapt and overcome in the military, which means we don't always ask for help, we don't always reach out, we tough it out.

We are very strong people and we don't like to fail, we will find a way around. That often means you have to be intentional with your interventions to make sure that student veterans get the support that they need despite their willingness to figure it out on their own.

Veronica Peña: I will add on that GI Bill is essentially a way for our veterans to pay for their tuition, pay for their housing and such. However, it's not an easy process to get the GI Bill. There's a lot of different documentation needed, and it first typically starts with a veteran going to the VA office and filling out some paperwork there, and then they work with the different universities.

So, it is such a process, and there's also a lot of different states that have kind of their own GI Bill. So, in Texas you have The Hazlewood Act, which also not only provides funding for a veteran, but also sometimes their family members as well.

Ian Todd: Yeah, and the important part about The Hazlewood is it's waiving tuition for state institutions or state-funded institutions, so it's not necessarily bringing money to your institution, but more so waiving it.

One thing I love it is that you're paid based on the highest in-state tuition from a public school in that state, and so they come with a lot of money for your institution. Just like you saw the boom in 1944, we saw a boom in higher ed in 2009. This is what changes the face of America.

Eddie Pickett: Thank you, Veronica, thank you, Ian for joining us today on the podcast, and sadly, that's all the time that we have. Also, thanks to you my friends in the audience for joining us for this episode.

College Admissions Decoded is a podcast from NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It is produced by LWC Studios. KojinTashiro produced this episode. If you'd like to learn more about NACAC's guests, our organization, and the college admissions process, visit our website at That's N-A-C-A-C-N-E-T.O-R-G. Please leave a review and rate us on Apple Podcast. See you next time on College Admissions Decoded.

CITATION: National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Finding and Supporting Veteran Students on Campus” 

NACAC College Admissions Decoded, 

National Association for College Admissions Counseling, May 13, 2023.