In the 40-year rich history of research about gender and helpseeking attitudes, college age women have been shown time and again … to score statistically better in quantitative studies and empirically more favorably in qualitative studies than men in their attitudes toward seeking psychological help and … academic assistance. —Dr. David DiRamio
But when DiRamio conducted an online survey on the help-seeking attitudes of women veterans, he was unprepared for the results. An associate professor in administration of higher education at Auburn University AL, he is also a veteran.
At the NASPA annual conference of student affairs administrators held in Orlando in March 2013, DiRamio discussed how schools can help women vets transition to academic life.
Using services increases retention
With two million current veterans and one million more expected within the next decade, student vets are a group that many schools seek to enroll and retain.
Students who use the services of veterans’ centers are more likely to persist in higher education than those who don’t. But many schools that created and funded veterans’ centers found they weren’t attracting much foot traffic.
Looking for research on the help-seeking attitudes of returning veterans, he tried to determine what works. DiRamio created an online survey he adapted from a 1995 instrument, “Attitudes toward Seeking Professional Psychological Help Scale.” His survey measured women vets’ attitudes toward getting psychological counseling and academic assistance like tutoring.
Conducted with the support of the Alabama Veterans Affairs Association, his survey went out to students at seven Alabama schools: four were four-year schools and three were two-year schools. Of some 1,500 students receiving surveys, 167 responded, about a quarter of them women.
DiRamio and colleagues at Kent State University OH followed up by conducting 30-minute in-depth interviews with 13 female student veterans enrolled at either Auburn or Kent State. Analyzing the results, DiRamio discovered that the mean help-seeking scores for female and male veterans were statistically equal. “After an exhaustive review of the literature on help-seeking from the 1970s forward, this research study appears to be the only investigation where a sample of college-age women scored statistically equal to men in their attitudes toward seeking help,” he said.
Women vets are suffering. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for 9/11 female vets surged to 19.9% in September 2012, compared with 9.7% for all veterans. Women were about 15% of all military personnel who served in Iraq; they were at risk for both military exposure and sexual assault by colleagues and superiors.
Women vets and military culture
In conducting the study, DiRamio and his Kent State colleagues wanted to understand what was the meaning and essence of their lived experiences. Their guiding theory was women’s identity.
Their research found that the women vets fell into one of four groups, based on whether they had experienced a crisis and their level of personal identity as a veteran:
• Path makers were most likely to complete their degrees. They viewed their military service as important, but just one piece of their lives.
• Gatekeepers were skeptics. They retained their military identity on campus, had no interest in a student identity and considered the campus community to be ridiculous.
• Searchers were looking for ways to merge their new identity as a student with their military service.
• Drifters were ambivalent. They didn’t completely identify with the military but also were the most likely to drop out of college.
Since studies show that most college women are more likely than men to seek help, why did the women vets score equal to men in seeking help?
DiRamio and his colleagues theorize that since the military culture is based on the male characteristics of dominance, conformity and being one of the good old boys, seeking help is seen as a sign of weakness.
The military cultivates an ethos of self-reliance, encouraging members to prove themselves and figure it out by themselves. Self-reliance brings respect.
Women soldiers feel that they must prove themselves. Although they see themselves as beautiful, tough and smart, they also believe that they must set an example for other women.
Vets who see combat are respected as heros. Because women aren’t allowed in combat, their status is inferior. They feel unworthy of help and reluctant to take campus services away from those who faced combat.
Coming out of the shadows
DiRamio and his colleagues have discovered that a plan to “build it and they will come” doesn’t work with this group of students, unless builders are very proactive in communicating the availability of services.
• Because women veterans are often found on the fringes, communicating the programs and offerings all across the campus works best.
• Administrators, staff, faculty and students need to encourage women vets to use the support services due to them.
• Helpful services such as drop-in childcare, programs to assist them to secure campus employment and focused meetings with single mother veterans can help to connect them to other key resources.
The research can help women veterans to transition to a student identity and benefit from the campus services offered to them.
Santovec, Mary Lou. (2013, July). Women Vets on Campus: Too Much Self-Reliance? Women in Higher Education, 22(7), 15.