Backpacking Veterans: Exploring Sense of Belonging, Happiness, and Stress-Coping


  • Guy Ilagan Zucker Family School of Education - The Citadel
  • jill ilagan Wellness Workshop, Charleston, SC, USA,
  • Robin Jocius University of Texas at Arlington, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Arlington, TX, USA
  • Tara Hornor The Citadel
  • Todd Shealy The Citadel
  • Annie Simpson Medical University of South Carolina
  • Gregory Cavaliere Dominion Energy
  • Brett Polen The Citadel
  • Jesse Brooks The Citadel



veterans, college, backpacking, belonging, happiness


U.S. military veterans attend college in increasing numbers, yet, often without a sense of attachment to their university. This mixed-methods exploratory study examined sense of belonging, happiness, and stress-coping outcomes for student veterans (N = 9) participating in a backpacking event. Results indicate the treatment group’s happiness level improved significantly over the control group, t(7) = 2.80, p = .027. Treatment group scores also improved on stress-coping, t(7) = 1.56, p = .163, and sense of belonging, t(7) = 2.28, p = .056; however, results were not statistically significant. The backpackers attributed increases in social belonging and happiness to the following elements of the trip: social support, stress coping, physical benefits, and camping skills. Although further quantitative research is indicated using larger and more diverse participant groups, findings from this study support the use of outdoor programming with veteran college students.

Author Biographies

Guy Ilagan, Zucker Family School of Education - The Citadel

Assistant Professor, Counselor Education Programs

Licensed Professional Counselor/Supervisor (SC) 

jill ilagan, Wellness Workshop, Charleston, SC, USA,

Dr. Jill Ilagan is an adjunct professor in The Citadel’s Graduate College, in Charleston, SC, USA. She is also a psychologist in private practice at Wellness Workshop, primarily treating people with body image concerns and disordered eating. Jill has published research on student mental health, counsellor effectiveness, motivation to change, and the effects of wilderness backpacking on women. In recent years, Jill created materials for and provided basic and advanced suicide prevention trainings for educators, social workers, counselors, military, and police in all six districts of Belize. Jill’s work has been published in the Journal of American College Health, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, and Research in Outdoor Education.

Robin Jocius, University of Texas at Arlington, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Arlington, TX, USA

Dr. Robin Jocius is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at University of Texas at Arlington. A former classroom teacher and interventionist, Dr. Jocius earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from Vanderbilt University, where her research and teaching focused on children and adolescents’ interactions with new and digital media. Dr. Jocius’ teaching and research interests include critical literacy, digital literacies, teacher learning, and the development of instructional contexts that support culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Her current research is funded by the National Science Foundation and investigates how critical, multimodal Making can enable more equitable access to computing and computational thinking in K-12 classrooms. Her work has been published in the Journal of Literacy Research, Language Arts, The Reading Teacher, English Journal, and Literacy Research: Theory, Method, and Practice.

Tara Hornor, The Citadel

Dr. Tara Hornor currently serves an Associate Professor in the Zucker Family School of Education with a joint appointment to The Citadel’s Department of Leadership Studies. Dr. Hornor holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Arizona and master’s degrees in school counseling, instructional design, and human resource management. She is also a 2014 graduate of Harvard University’s Institute for Management and Leadership in Education (MLE) and a 2009 graduate of Harvard University’s Performance Assessment in Higher Education Institute. Dr. Hornor’s research interests include the college choice process, enrollment management, strategic planning and assessment.

Todd Shealy, The Citadel

Todd Shealy is Student Services Manager in the Academic Affairs office at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. His work focuses on supporting faculty, advising students and helping them be successful, managing and facilitating the student diversity leadership training program, and serving as an instructor for freshman writing and leadership studies. Shealy is also the course director for the First Year Experience program at The Citadel. Shealy holds three master’s degrees in student affairs and college counseling, leadership studies, and teaching. Before coming to The Citadel, Shealy was an overseas Peace Corps volunteer and an executive with the Boy Scouts in Greenville, SC. He has traveled in over 40 countries and is an Eagle Scout. Shealy is passionate about helping students succeed in college, develop leadership knowledge and skills to be effective and ethical leaders, and achieve their full potential.

Annie Simpson, Medical University of South Carolina

Annie N. Simpson, PhD, is a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Healthcare Leadership and Management at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and is Co-Director of the PhD Program in Health and Rehabilitation Science in the Department of Health Sciences and Research, MUSC College of Health Professions. Dr. Simpson's research focus areas are:  Propensity score causal methods for quasi-experimental observational studies, biostatistical and health services research collaboration, use of electronic health record data for pragmatic comparative effectiveness research, and  impact of telehealth on healthcare access, costs and outcomes, and outcomes from outdoor recreation.

Gregory Cavaliere, Dominion Energy

Gregory Cavaliere is a USN veteran and a highly skilled backpacker. Greg develops backpacking training and has expertise in outdoor gear, group morale, and backcountry logistics. He has hiked extensively in the area where the backpacking trip occured. Greg is currently working as a a Security Compliance Manager at Dominion Energy.

Brett Polen, The Citadel

Brett graduated from Michigan State University with his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and is studying for his Master's in Higher Education Leadership from The Citadel. He currently works in Career Services at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and advises the Student Veteran Service Organization on campus. He stays busy with backpacking, hiking, playing hockey, reading and volunteering. 

Jesse Brooks, The Citadel

Jesse Brooks currently serves as the Veteran Services Coordinator and Citadel Student Veteran Association Advisor at The Citadel (US). He is a veteran of the United States Navy, where he served on the USS Houston (SSN-713) as a Nuclear Machinist Mate. After being honorably discharged and working in the natural gas industry, he decided to pursue his B.A. in Psychology (’20) and is on schedule to graduate with his M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership in May of 2022. 


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Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Special Issue 2022