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23 Oct 2023

Prioritizing Veterans' Voices as a University Librarian

Most public universities identify as “veteran friendly” campuses, and frequently provide outreach events and programs for veterans to help build a sense of community and support system for these students. While the intentions of the universities are good, as a student veteran, I often found myself not wanting to participate in these events, as they often felt insincere and unattuned with military culture, customs, and norms. Anecdotally, these events felt infantilizing to me personally, (use of military terminology like “Basic Training”, “Bootcamp”), or too boilerplate (overuse of red, white, and blue, bunting, and being overtly patriotic). In this piece, I will share about my role as a faculty librarian, the lens through which I develop and design veteran programs, and my call to action for those who design and facilitate programs for veterans.

From Student Veteran to Faculty Librarian

As a university librarian, I interface with student veterans regularly. I have begun to branch out and begin various programming and outreach efforts at my institution, and my goal is to prioritize veteran voices in authentic and respectful ways. Specific departments at universities often develop and implement programming or events for veterans, including advising offices, veteran centers, and libraries. Outreach and programming are considered an implicit part of librarians’ duties. Part of my role involves developing events, book displays, instruction opportunities and outreach efforts for a variety of student populations, including student veterans. Sometimes this outreach looks like “roving reference” within the veteran center where I visit our campus veteran center and sit down with my laptop, making myself physically available for any questions or reference help in a veteran centric space. Other times this outreach can look like curating a specific book display for resources related to veteran issues, or it can involve creating independent study opportunities for student veterans interested in research.

Veteran Critical Theory and Program Development

Veteran Critical Theory (VCT) is one lens that I apply to my work, and it has been instrumental when designing and implementing programming. VCT stems from the burgeoning field of Veteran Studies, which investigates the multifaceted experiences of veterans and military families.  These investigations include the various intersections of power structures, identities, and individual experiences that both veterans and military families can experience and encounter. Considering that Veteran Studies is a relatively new field of study, VCT has been one of the most critical and inclusive theories that attempts to center veteran voices in Veteran Studies discourse. I utilize VCT as a framework within my own work because of how much it centers veteran voices and the intersections of different identities.

Proposed by Phillips and Lincoln, VCT attempts to view the structures and systems that affect veterans through a critical lens. VCT is heavily influenced through other critical theories like feminist theory, critical race theory, deficit-thinking, border theory, and intersectionality among others. VCT consists of 11 tenets that I will briefly explain below:

  1. Structures, policies, and processes privileges civilians over veterans

    In direct relation to higher education, Phillips and Lincoln write that “today’s colleges, universities, and trade schools are most often led by civilians, taught by civilians, and paradigmatically run with a traditional-aged civilian student in mind” (pg. 600, 2017).

    This conception of what a “student” is can lead to veterans and other military affiliated students being inadvertently disadvantaged. Consider any aspects that may be making it difficult for veterans to engage with your program. For example, student veterans often have responsibilities outside of just school (jobs, spouses, children, caregiving) – are you offering your program or event during a time when people with families or school-aged children would be able to attend? Additionally, try to validate military experiences and skills. For example, if you are hosting an event about hiring student employees, don’t just emphasize internships as work experience – be explicit that your department accepts military work experience. Acknowledge that it can often be difficult for veterans to translate their military work experience to civilian jobs and encourage any employers to consider all applicable experience when applying.

  2. Veterans experience various forms of oppression and marginalization including microaggressions

    A common microaggression veterans experience is denial of privacy. Many civilians often approach conversations with veterans expecting a veteran to tell their story. Acknowledge that often veterans want to be perceived from a holistic perspective and they are not the sum of their military experience.

  3. Veterans are victims of deficit thinking in higher education

    Phillips and Lincoln write “in the case of student veterans, deficits or more often perceived deficits are blamed on the student veteran when they are more likely a fault of the civilian-oriented and civilian-privileging structures of higher education institutions. Programs that focus on student veteran retention and academic success may be using civilian measures that do not accurately gauge student veteran success.” (pg. 661, 2017).

    When applied to veterans, deficit-thinking places the burden of reform and correction onto veterans. Assess any outreach efforts from a critical perspective – are you unintentionally promoting deficit-thinking instead of valuing the strengths and unique perspectives that veterans and military affiliated individuals may bring to the table? This can be as simple as reframing any questions or statements to a more positive or affirming light or moving away from the idea that veterans need to conform to a “civilian” mindset after they leave from the military. What ways can you assist a veteran in the transition from military to civilian? Are there ways you can provide direct support? 

  4. Veterans occupy a third space (country) on the border of multiple conflicting and interacting power structures, languages, and systems

    Recognize that veterans experience multiple cultures and identities, including that of being a civilian and being in the military. This often requires intentional shifts in things like behavior and language to assimilate to the “dominant” culture.

  5. VCT values narratives and counternarratives of veterans

    Veterans are not a monolith, and their experiences are as unique as their service! One size fits all programming won’t work for everyone. What are the ways you can incorporate other perspectives and frameworks into your programming? Within my own work, I try to seek out diverse perspectives from veterans, and this usually looks like refraining from assuming all veterans are men, all veterans were “soldiers” or that all veterans were in combat. Even the experience of being a veteran can be contested among veterans – some veterans don’t feel that their military experience is core to their personal identity, while others place a lot of value and stock in their veteran identity. Structuring your outreach or programming to only serve the latter is doing a disservice to other veterans with counter narratives to what the popular depiction of a veteran is.

  6. Veterans experience multiple identities at once

    While veteran status is considered a “protected” class, the identity of being a veteran is unique. Other identities (racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality) have intersecting and compounding effects on the veteran experience. Queer veterans, women veterans, or veterans of color may not be inclined to participate in programming targeted towards the broader “veteran” population. Is your programming or event only serving or appealing to one type of veteran?

  7. Veterans are constructed (written) by civilians, often as deviant characters

    Aligned with deficit-thinking, the characterization of veterans as “deviant” characters run deep, and our assumptions of how veterans think, and act impact the services we provide. While it’s true that many veterans experience complex traumas, it is unfair to assume that all veterans have experienced the same things or react the same way. Overuse of generalized stereotypes (having PTSD, struggling with violence and aggression) not only further marginalizes the veterans who do experience these conditions, but also delegitimize veterans who do not.

  8. Veterans are more appropriately positioned to inform policy and practices regarding veterans

    Ask the veterans around you for input on your programming! All too often veterans are excluded from the planning and design of programming meant for them. What ways can you imbed yourself within your local veteran community?

  9. Some services advertised to serve veterans are ultimately serving civilian interests

    Showing interest and care in the community beyond your own programming efforts can go a long way in establishing trust and respect between your institution and the veteran community.

  10. Veterans cannot be essentialized

    We cannot distill down veteran identity into a list of traits, and our programming should strive to be adaptable and reflective of whatever veteran community we are serving.

  11. Veteran culture is built on a culture of respect, honor, and trust

    Recognize the uniqueness of military culture and work towards applying some of these values into your programming and framing many of the skills veterans have as a positive instead of focusing on any perceived deficits.

The Impact of Applying Veteran Critical Theory to Veteran Programming

VCT strives to uplift veteran voices while deconstructing negative stereotypes and paradigms about who veterans are, and the best ways to better serve them. By reviewing outreach efforts through a more critical lens, we open the door to more authentic and genuine connections. One of my biggest accomplishments this past year was securing funding for a library research assistant. This paid opportunity was made specifically for a veteran or military affiliated student and serves as an additional avenue for our campus veterans to have a voice in the research and outreach happening within their community. The goal of this position was to allow a student veteran to be directly involved in my research which seeks to understand how veterans on our campus interact with programming. The more veteran voices I can include within my work, both in my own faculty research and library outreach programming, the more I can help dismantle the monolithic understanding of what it means to be a veteran. My hope is that this research can serve as an opportunity for the diverse opinions of our veteran students to be heard and respected.

A Call to Action

Support for veterans can look wildly different depending on a variety of factors, but I encourage all folks to consider the tenets of VCT and the ways in which these tenets can be applied in real life; whether that looks like an employer encouraging military work experience or an educator providing classroom support to a veteran while affirming their experiences rather than expecting them to conform to civilian norms. My passion is leveraging diverse veteran voices through outreach and programming, and I believe the framework of VCT is one tool which can help us be more reflective and intentional about how we serve, perceive, and develop programs for our veterans.

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