For University of Miami graduate student Kari Weiterschan, all roads have led to the Green Zone.
The name references the International Zone of Baghdad that was established following the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. But this Green Zone transcends place: It’s a nationally recognized initiative to educate college students, faculty and staff about the students among them who have served in the military.
Yes, Green Zone means safety.
Weiterschan is adapting the program to UM’s Coral Gables campus as part of her Ph.D. dissertation in the School of Education & Human Development’s Department of Educational and Psychological Studies. The goal: Build UM community members’ understanding of the military and veteran experience to enable a more supportive environment in which student service members and veterans can feel empowered.
“Veteran students represent a minority group on most college campuses, which existing research suggests may present certain challenges, including establishing a sense of belonging and social support, which are factors that influence GPA, retention, and even student health outcomes,” says Weiterschan.
Her efforts are timely. More than one million veterans were using their GI benefits to pursue higher education in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and that number was expected to increase by 20% in the next few years. The majority served post-9/11, so many students have served in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Weiterschan estimates UM has 500 undergraduate and graduate student veterans, but it could be more because “the only ways to identify them is if they are receiving GI benefits or they self-identify.” The Facebook group for UM’s Veteran Students Organization, or VSO, has 351 members.
To begin the project, Weiterschan used a community readiness model to assess the campus climate for student veterans, including available resources. Multiple interviews with students, faculty and staff indicated limited knowledge about and awareness of student veterans, hence a need to improve support for that population.
Participants in the Green Zone training program Weiterschan is now piloting learn that student veterans are likely to be older (24-40, according to the VA), married, working full or part time, first-generation college students (62%, says the VA) with competing obligations, some still on reserve duty – all of which “speaks to their resilience and capacity to succeed,” she notes.
Participants can also grasp the experiences and skills veterans bring to campus, particularly leadership and philanthropy.
“They’re exceptional leaders, dedicated and disciplined, with a passion for helping other people,” Weiterschan says. “They’re coming from a culture of putting others first, of self-sacrifice, so they value teamwork and camaraderie.”
Few understand better than Weiterschan the challenges that veterans face when they become college students. As a college undergrad, she read “Trauma and Recovery” by Dr. Judith Herman, a book that had enormous impact on how we treat those who have endured violence.
It also had enormous impact on Weiterschan, who grew up in an upstate New York family with deep roots in the U.S. military. She read the book 10 times while earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature at Siena College and working as a hotline counselor in nearby Albany, N.Y., with women and children victims of domestic abuse.
“I became enthralled with understanding PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and the correlates of risk and resilience among people who had been traumatized,” says Weiterschan, who went on to earn a master’s in transdisciplinary studies in trauma and violence at New York University.
She then began Ph.D. studies in counseling psychology at UM, where she has thrived under the mentorship of Lydia Buki, Ph.D., associate professor, who directs training for the Counseling Psychology program and whose research focuses on underserved populations.
“I am blessed to have her; she is a huge support,” says Weiterschan. “I’m distinguished from a lot of my peers in related programs because of the training in multiculturalism and focus on diversity issues I receive at UM.”
Although other colleges and universities are using their versions of the Green Zone, she notes, “no gold standard” has been developed for implementation. Thus, an ultimate goal is to standardize and make the training more transportable among campuses.
“The Green Zone project is filling a great need at the University of Miami,” says Dr. Buki. “And because no other university has conducted an empirical investigation of the Green Zone program, Kari’s dissertation has the potential to inform the development of similar programs across a range of universities.”
“So far, the feedback from our participants has been wonderful,” Weiterschan says, adding that participants report that the training “dispelled some myths” and provided “insight into what it is like to be in their shoes.”
“The project has made me feel so much more connected to UM,” she adds. “Everyone has been amazing with their energy and enthusiasm for helping advance the project. I’m really proud to be here.”
If interested in participating or learning more about the Green Zone, please contact Weiterschan at firstname.lastname@example.org.