Serving Student Veterans, When You’re Not a Veteran

Nikki Cole

March 20, 2017

I have one of the best jobs ever: I work in the Office of Veterans Affairs & Military Programs at the University of Connecticut, serving our student veterans and other military-connected students (i.e. dependents, spouses, those in the Reserves and National Guard, etc.).  I am honored to serve those who have served (or continue to serve) our country.  They and their families have made very real sacrifices in their lives in their service to all of us.  So, as someone who didn’t serve, I have a very real and genuine appreciation for them. 

Some time ago, when I first started working in this position, I heard complaints from colleagues who were not veterans.  Specifically they were complaining they were unable to connect with the very veterans they were supposed to be helping.  To be honest, I was surprised they were having such difficulties making connections, because I had such an easy time connecting, and forming positive working relationships, with our student veterans.  When I took some time to reflect on those conversations, I started thinking about what I do.  Since I’m not a veteran, I’ve always been very cognizant of the fact that veterans immediately know when they talk to a fellow veteran, they’re talking to someone who automatically understands a lot of what they went through in the military.  So, I’ve always been of the attitude that I have to do things a little differently, than my colleagues who are veterans. 

From the time I started in this position, (nearly four years ago), it came down to some basic ideas that I worked on from Day 1.  I also have to say, I had a lot of help and support from other veterans, which helped me be successful in my day to day interactions.  Let me make this clear:  I definitely can’t take all the credit here.  I’ve had a lot of help.  First and foremost, building positive partnerships, and finding mentors among veterans, has been key.  I’ve learned a lot through those relationships and gained a lot of legitimacy among our student veterans from my relationships with other veterans.  Obtaining that positive rapport and reputation takes time and a lot of face-to-face interaction through working on projects and programs together.  Particularly, for those who are working as a one-person show and serving student veterans – find others who are interested and enthusiastic about helping student veterans out.  It can be a lonely job, but you don’t have to do it alone.  There are a lot of people out there in the larger Veterans community willing to help (i.e. VA, VFW, American Legion, etc.).

Another tip:  Listen!  I think all of us are guilty of this: we don’t take the time to listen like we should.  When there is a student in front of me, I don’t care who they are, or if I know them yet, I turn away from my computer, put away the cell phone, and just listen.  I don’t interrupt them.  I don’t interject any political or social views.  I just listen and hear what they have to say.  When they’re finished, if they’re seeking help I will connect them with the resources/answers they need.  I won’t do the work for them, but I’ll direct/introduce them to the right place/person who can help them out.  Also, I don’t wait for them to come to me.  I’m more successful when I go out to them, where our student veterans are, and not just holed up in my office.  Though, the word is out I keep candy (good candy) on my desk, so sometimes they will drop by . . . .

Last, but not least, keeping an open mind and learning all that I can about the military is integral to my position.  I like reading, so in my spare time I enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies about veterans.   For movie-lovers, there are a lot of great movies to show a glimpse of what people in the military go through.   Of course, taking advantage of professional development opportunities, like webinars, reading articles and studies on student veterans, in addition to conferences and drive-ins can also give much-needed information.  Personally, I learn the most from each veteran I encounter.  Each of them has their own unique story.  I make no assumptions about their experiences, in and out of the military, and I treat them as the “expert” on their own personal story and journey.

Nikki Cole is the Executive Assistant in the Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs at the University of Connecticut.

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