Over the last decade, a concerted effort has been made to transition, support, and graduate student veterans through national and campus policies and improvements. However, few studies have examined student veteran engagement, belonging, and campus integration at a national scale. Nor has there been a scaled study of the intersecting identities of student veterans and how they relate to campus engagement and success.
Regarding belongingness, veterans often report imposter syndrome, difficulty working in groups with younger students, and feelings of isolation on campus (Elliott & Gonzalez, 2011; Mendez et. al, 2018; Morris et al., 2019; & Williams-Klotz & Gansemer-Topf, 2017). A few studies found a perceived lack of respect from faculty and other students, based on ideological differences on war and the military (Elliott et al., 2011; Persky & Oliver, 2010; Rumann & Hamrick, 2010). These studies highlight the importance of creating discourse between student veterans and their non-veteran peers on campus to lessen cultural boundaries and gain mutual understanding of military service (Kent & Buechner, 2021; Elliot et al., 2011). To bridge communication and cultural gaps between student-veterans and non-veterans, Veteran Ally Training programs have been developed to increase sense of belonging and integration, and have demonstrated success (Morris et al., 2021; Osborne, 2013).
Guided by the Cultural Congruity framework which focuses on values, beliefs, and expectations as they relate to how one adapts to a new culture (Gloria & Kurpius, 1996), the Vacchi and Berger model (2014) for student veteran success, and Crenshaw's (1989) intersectionality framework, we used data from the 2020 and 2021 administrations of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to examine the experiences of student veterans. Specifically, we asked the following research questions:
- How do veteran and non-veteran students compare on select aspects of a supportive environment for college students?
- How do student veterans with varying identities and student characteristics compare on select aspects of a supportive environment for college students?
Our study outcome measures are all important aspects of a supportive environment for college students: Sense of Belonging, Collaborative Learning, Student-Faculty Interaction, and Quality of Interactions. In some analyses, we combine these measures to form a measure of Environmental Integration. We examined the experiences of 12,668 student veterans, 4% of the total sample, enrolled at 813 four-year institutions across the United States. We found that student veterans are more likely to be enrolled part time; living off campus; majoring in Business, Engineering, or Social Service Professions; first-generation students; identifying as men; identifying as People of Color, or reporting a sensory or physical disability, chronic medical condition, or more than one disability or impairment.
Using more traditional variable-centered analyses, specifically OLS regressions, we found statistically significant, but very small differences between veteran and non-veteran student supportive environment outcomes. Within the student veteran population, however, we found many significant and notable differences by other identity and student characteristics. For example, veteran students identifying with a nonbinary gender identity had lower Sense of Belonging and Quality of Interactions than the average scores of veteran students overall. Veteran students who lived on campus had far greater Collaborative Learning and Student-Faculty Interaction than the average scores of veteran students overall.
Using person-centered analyses to further examine differences across veteran students, a two-step cluster analysis grouped student veterans into three groups: 1) high Environmental Integration, 2) low Environmental Integration, and mixed Environmental Integration where students had low interactions with faculty and peers but a high quality of interactions with others and sense of belonging. A selection of results summarized in the table below show patterns of how veteran students with other identity and student characteristics experience environmental integration.