Supporting Self-Reliant Military and Veteran Students in Career Development Services Utilization

By Sarah M. Terry

Growing up, I was raised in a family and neighborhood filled with individuals who took pride in being self-reliant. Their careers were very goal and task oriented and included fields such as accounting, manufacturing, law enforcement, and military service. Their career goals (and in many cases, job responsibilities) seemed clear and concise and they took pleasure in being able to recognize to what degree they were succeeding in reaching their goals. Today, I work in a Military and Veterans Resource Center in higher education where I assist military and veteran students to successfully transition from military service into the college civilian environment and then into careers of their choice. In my experience working with military and veteran students, I have quickly learned that much like the family and neighbors of my youth, current military service members and veterans also value setting highly specific career goals and being able to reach them as independently as possible.

When current or former members of the military transition from the military environment to the civilian environment, they often experience culture shock (American Council on Education, n.d.). Military life includes a distinct hierarchical structure, specific missions and goals, and the expectation that service members be as self-sufficient as possible for the benefit of the overall group. In comparison, the civilian environment lacks a consistent widespread structure and mission, and it frequently encourages substantial resource utilization. This stark contrast often results in service members and veterans feeling lost or confused when trying to adapt to civilian environments; this sense of loss and confusion can become a barrier to service members’ and veterans’ utilization of services.

Appropriate Resource Utilization

The Military and Veterans Resource Center where I work offers referrals and direct services for a wide variety of military and veteran student needs, including social support, academic assistance, financial aid information, mental health and medical care, social engagement, and career services. The university has over 1,400 military and veteran students and the center consistently interacts with large numbers of our military-connected students. Although our students frequently express interest in utilizing services (especially career services), we have noticed that students often hesitate to actually use the services that we and our partnering organizations offer. Anecdotally, we have heard a number of different reasons why our students hesitate to take advantage of career and academic support services. Some common reasons that students share include:

  • Lack of awareness of the full range of services offered

  • Scheduling issues/ lack of time

  • Not wanting to use services in case other people have a greater level of need

  • Uncertainty about the purpose or potential impact of some services

  • Uncertainty about one’s own need for service

  • Stigma associated with asking for or receiving assistance

  • Assumption of not qualifying for veteran services based on individual military service related characteristics, such as serving during peace time, lack of deployments, limited VA disability rating, or other factors that can impact access to veteran-specific resources.

Research on reluctance to utilize supportive student resources is limited, but some literature does exist (Callahan & Jarrat, 2014; Lighthall, 2012; Vivov, 2013-2014). Current literature offers some recommendations on how to support military and veteran student resource usage. For example, service members and veterans are more likely to utilize resources if they know that other service members and veterans have contributed to the resource’s development. It is also helpful when service members and veterans are introduced to resources by fellow service members and veterans who can speak to their own positive experiences with using a resource. Another helpful approach includes explaining how resources serve as valuable tools that service members and veterans can use to fulfill their new mission of personal career development.

Mission: Career Development

When I lead orientation programs for new military and veteran students, I often share an analogy where I relate resource utilization to using tools in military occupations. I ask military and veteran students to imagine that their military occupation was to serve as a mechanic who had to travel from jobsite to jobsite to make vehicle repairs. I point out how no one would fault them for bringing tools to their jobsites, and it would be considered a serious problem if they did not. I then explain that here in college their new occupation or mission is to develop and work toward a career plan. The university and our partner programs provide resources (including career services) which serve as tools to assist them in completing their career development mission. Using an analogy such as this helps create a context where service utilization shifts from being an unfamiliar option to being an expected and necessary component of reaching one’s personal goals or mission.

Introducing career services from a personal empowerment perspective in the context of completing a mission can help military and veteran students engage in their career development with confidence. Career services and other related resources should now be seen as tools these students expect to draw upon in order to reach their educational and career goals.



American Council on Education. n.d.). Campus Culture. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/Campus-Culture.aspx

Callahan, R. & Jarrat D. (2014). Helping Student Service Members and Veterans Succeed. Change: The Magazine of Higher Education, 46 (2), 36-41.

Lighthall, A. (2012). Ten Things You Should Know about Today’s Student Veteran. Thought and Action, 28, 81-89.

Zivov, B. (2013). A Career Counseling Student’s Exploration of Military Veteran Issues. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 29(4), 72-83.



Sarah TerrySarah Terry is Assistant Director of Campus Engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Military and Veterans Resource Center. She provides a variety of academic, career, and personal development services for military and veteran students. Sarah has completed a Master of Science in Community Counseling with a specialization in Career Counseling. She can be reached at tarah@uwm.edu



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1 Comment

Kristy Magee   on Tuesday 05/02/2017 at 04:30 PM

Great article, Sarah. I really appreciate your analogy. Great insight into this area.

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