Simulations Guide Veterans Facing Challenges in Higher Education

From feelings of loneliness to anxiety, veterans may face many challenges transitioning into or acclimating to campus life. In an effort to help those with such difficulties, researchers from Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (OVMA), and School of Education will begin the process of developing simulated interaction models, better known as SIMs, for veterans in higher education.

According to Nick Armstrong, Ph.D., senior director for research and policy at IVMF, such challenges exist and are ones that he knows all too well: “Unfortunately, research shows that many veterans express more angst over fitting in on a college campus than going back overseas on their n’th combat tour. And I lived this in my own experience here at Syracuse a decade ago.”

Benjamin Dotger, professor of teaching and leadership in the School of Education, has been using SIMs for more than a decade to prepare pre-service teachers and educational leaders. Dotger’s SIMs build from medical education’s use of simulations, where future physicians engage with standardized patients. Dotger and colleagues use SIMs to study how future teachers and leaders engage in direct, face-to-face interactions with carefully trained actors who serve as standardized parents, students or colleagues. Situated in a simulation room at SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Clinical Skills Center, a future educator faces the questions, statements and issues that a standardized individual presents, working to synthesize the content knowledge, instructional practices and professional dispositions taught within the School of Education. Simulations are then video recorded, allowing for structured, systematic, data-informed reflection by those who participate.

The clinical simulations specific to veterans and ROTC members will be designed using data gathered from Syracuse University student veterans getting ready to transition on campus and those currently enrolled at the University, along with those who have graduated. The simulations will be structured to model situations that veterans may face when they come to campus in order to help them better transition to campus life.

According to Dotger, while currently in the initial stages, this project has the potential to be ground breaking: “This project presents a potential game-changing opportunity for higher education to, on the one hand, develop better tools that would support veterans’ transition to campuses across the country and, on the other hand, prepare the future professoriate and student affairs cadre on leading practices supporting student veteran success.”

Additionally, says Dotger, “it is critical that we both recognize and support our veterans as they—and their families—transition from military service to collegiate study.” Clinical simulations are opportunities to practice engaging in specific situations. “Our hope,” he says, “is that SIMs will help veterans’ practice the transitions—the tough situations and unforeseen challenges—in an environment that is supportive. And we expect the project to build community among cohorts of veterans as they transition to SU, and we expect the project to offer support to veterans as they join the broader SU community.”

The SIMs for veterans in higher education project is set to begin next month. For more information, visit the IVMFOVMA or School of Education websites.