Although rates of homelessness and unemployment among U.S. military veterans have declined significantly in the past decade, in 2014, nearly 50,000 veterans were still without homes and 573,000 were unemployed, according to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
[Above: Dr. Beverly Jones with current University of Michigan-Flint VBSN students at the university’s Veterans Day Remembrance Celebration]
Also, military veterans have a higher risk of mental health disorders and substance abuse, stemming from trauma incurred during combat service — common factors among people who are homeless.
It was because of these figures that faculty members in the University of Michigan (UM)-Flint Department of Nursing decided that more needed to be done to improve outcomes for returning military service members. The school’s recently launched accelerated veterans’ bachelor of science in nursing (VBSN) program is designed to ease the transition from military service to employment for veterans and remove barriers they face in accessing education.
Thanks to a three-year, $1 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, UM-Flint is able to offer specialized support for veterans, as well as streamline the transfer of their military medical training credits toward their bachelor’s degree. Additionally, because the program is accelerated, veterans can earn their degree in 16 months, rather than three years.
Beverly Jones, VBSN project director and assistant professor of nursing in UM-Flint’s Department of Nursing, wrote the grant proposal that secured the HRSA funding. As a veteran herself, she says her experiences in the Army Nurse Corps were a motivating factor in establishing the VBSN program.
“Military experiences stimulated my awareness of the connectedness of all peoples to each other and our environments,” Jones said in an email. “Army nurse experiences … deepened my understanding of the impact and importance of active participation on whatever team I’ve been assigned or have personally selected, and I saw firsthand the sense of loyalty, goal-oriented motivation, and the expanding skills and abilities that military experiences developed and nurtured in both civilians and military personnel.”
John Collins, VBSN program manager, says Jones’ presence on the faculty has had a positive impact on how the department serves its student veterans.
“Her being here creates a special identification with other veterans; not only is she a veteran, but she’s also part of the nursing faculty,” he says. “For student veterans to see her in that position gives them a sense of being part of something larger.”
Jones says the VBSN serves to challenge the myths some non-veterans have about returning military service members.
“The program offers the structure for veterans to provide strong support to other students through mentoring and purposeful role modeling,” she says. “Simultaneously it is fulfilling nursing workforce needs and providing a cadre of recruits who will further the diversity goals of the nursing profession.”
The VBSN allows veterans to build on their previous military medical training, but transferring credits for that training into a traditional nursing degree program is a complex process. Collins says it requires considerable man-hours to evaluate a student veteran’s Joint Services Transcript (JST) and assess his or her readiness for the nursing program.
Veterans’ prior medical education can be evaluated with help from recommendations made by the American Council on Education (ACE). According to Michele Spires, director of Military Programs at ACE’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation, whether to accept certain military credits is ultimately the decision of individual colleges and universities.
“ACE ensures the integrity and quality of education,” Spires says. “But each institution establishes its own protocols to align with its own mission and vision. There is no one set of protocols [for deciding how military credits should transfer].”
Because military healthcare training is very specialized, she says there can be “mini gaps” in returning service members’ knowledge; for example, a Navy hospital corpsman may have extensive preparation for dealing with bullet wounds but less for handling civilian injuries.
At UM-Flint, incoming student veterans must demonstrate competency in certain academic and clinical areas as a means of evaluating where those gaps may exist before credits can be transferred.
The VBSN program is not separate from UM-Flint’s accelerated BSN track, and returning service members take classes with non-veteran students. Currently, there is not a set number of seats allotted for veterans in the program, but Collins says that is something faculty will be voting on. The first cohort of student veterans in the VBSN program began classes this past fall, and the five students — all male — should complete their degrees by December 2017.
Students in the program receive extra support through the Student Veterans Resource Center on campus; UM-Flint serves around 200 student veterans and has been nationally recognized for its student veteran services. In addition to tutoring and help with writing assignments, veterans can access assistance with navigating their VA benefits, housing allowances, and tuition reimbursement.
Collins says faculty and staff in the department are also dedicated to helping student veterans find a nursing job in their area of expertise once they graduate. In addition, the school is developing local partnerships to ensure this happens.
“The transition between nursing school and the nursing profession is usually smooth, but sometimes it can be rocky,” he says. “We are developing relationships with community-based health facilities, hospitals, and emergency rooms to ensure a seamless transition for veterans from school, to the licensing exam — the NCLEX — to the profession. And we’ll be following up with students and keeping in contact [with them] for six months after they graduate.”
Jones echoes this idea by saying the supportive environment of the VBSN program is intended to ensure veterans’ success through retirement.
“In a nutshell,” she says, “the program is designed to put students who are veterans ahead of the curve upon their return to civilian life and college.”●
Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.