“Student veterans are a growing population, and there isn’t as much research or literature about this demographic out there compared to other student populations,” says Dr. Erin Reifsteck, associate professor in UNC Greensboro’s Department of Kinesiology. “Research suggests veterans are at an increased risk for chronic physical and mental health conditions. We know in the field of kinesiology that physical activity is an important piece to one’s overall wellbeing.”
Reifsteck and co-investigator and fellow UNCG Associate Professor of Kinesiology Dr. Michael Hemphill embarked on a two-year research study with two goals: to understand student veterans’ unique experience related to physical activity in their transition out of the military and to identify relevant community assets to support them.
In the spring, the research team presented its findings and recommendations in its report: Supporting Student Veterans’ Physical Activity.
Collaborating with key stakeholders
Building off her work with Moving On!, a program designed to help student-athletes make healthy transitions to life after college sports, Reifsteck shifted her attention to student veterans.
“Many veterans actually reached out to me and expressed interest,” says Reifsteck. “There is a parallel between athletes transitioning out of sports and veterans transitioning out of the military. As an outsider to the veteran community, I needed to connect with other resources to learn more about the veteran experience.”
One such connection was Dr. Gregory Daniels, a fellow associate professor of kinesiology and retired General of the U.S. Army.
“Dr. Daniels confirmed that this was definitely an area that deserved attention,” says Reifsteck, “and when we disseminated the information from our study in the spring, he talked to the students about the results. He could bring his life experience to it.”
Reifsteck and Hemphill also worked closely with former Office of Military-Affiliated Services (MAS) Director Brad Wrenn and current Director Chris Gregory to identify veteran students and interview them about their experiences after their military service. In addition to running these focus groups, the team developed an online survey and interviewed university stakeholders.
Turning research into action
Key findings identified a major shift in the type and intensity of physical activity as well as the motivation to remain physically active post-military. It also revealed that most student veterans desire a tight-knit community and connection to other veterans. While UNCG offers many fitness-related opportunities, Reifsteck says they are not necessarily tailored to student veterans and their needs. Hemphill adds, “Some veterans need adaptive movement opportunities due to an injury. And many don’t see how they can fit in.”
In the fall, Reifsteck and Hemphill co-hosted an orientation with MAS for student veterans, welcoming them back to campus and highlighting their focus on supporting them through physical activity and community connection.
“MAS conducted its own survey last spring and found that 75% of veteran students want activities that connect them with other veteran students,” says Gregory. “Coupled with the work of Reifsteck, we saw the need for frequent activities for veteran students to connect with one another. We were fortunate to expand the Office of Military-Affiliated Services and offer recreation and social areas in addition to quiet study or group work space. This has allowed us to serve more veteran students.”
Hemphill says they are strategizing future events and further ways they can support UNCG student veterans. “MAS is building on the research by implementing some of our recommendations, such as organizing group fitness activities and veteran-only hiking trips,” he adds.
Supporting veterans systemwide
The work didn’t stop here. The team presented its findings to UNC System Military Affairs and is developing a systemwide survey to identify student veteran needs and interest across UNC System campuses.
“We hope to build a coalition to do more systemwide initiatives,” explains Reifsteck. “We found that veterans generally feel less connected to the university. When they feel more engaged and supported by the university, it leads to higher retention and graduation rates.”
Hemphill is also motivated by the public ethic to support the military: “We thought, here’s one way to play a supportive role. It feels like a win to help the local community.”
Reifsteck adds, “We’ve had many student veterans thank us for asking these questions and trying to support them. It’s exciting to expand our research in this direction and this partnership has served as a bright light and truly enjoyable experience.”
Interested in how UNCG supports student veterans?
Learn more about UNCG Military-Affiliated Services (MAS).
Story by Amanda Saber, AMBCopy
Photography provided by Dr. Erin Reifsteck