This blog post is a collaboration between Lee Wagner and Erin Rentschler.
Over the past year, I have had the honor of learning from Lee Wagner, Duquesne University School of Nursing’s out-going Veterans to BSN Academic Coach. Lee also chaired the Veterans’ Engagement Consortium, a group of faculty and staff from across the University who are interested in helping to better serve our veteran and military students through targeted engagement focused on academic success and career preparation.
I asked Lee to reflect on how instructors can enhance the learning experience of this population of students—whose pathways to higher education and future directions both have a lot to offer both within and outside of the University. Over the course of the year, we hope to continue reflecting on how military and veteran students contribute to and diversify our campus community. Lee’s thoughts are below. We wish him well in his new role as Veterans Program Outreach Specialist for the White Oak Vet Center.
I am often asked by faculty, “What makes the military/veteran population students unique?” That seems like a simple question to answer, but it can quickly become a rabbit hole of assumptions and speculation. There are two simple answers, one is, “their life experience” and the other is that a majority of veteran students are first generation college students. This unique life experience and a lack of exposure to traditional university life can leave the veteran student feeling isolated and confused. In order for an instructor to understand this student population best, they must first have a better understanding of what that unique life experience is, what it is not, and how it differs from traditional college life. This post will focus on the military experience, but a later post may center on the intersection of first generation and military and veteran students.
Let us start with what it is not. Not all military and veteran students have a service-connected disability, have seen combat trauma, or want to talk about their time in the military. There are hundreds of military occupation specialties that a man or woman can serve in. Some members serve in the infantry, which has a higher likelihood of experiencing combat, while others serve in clerical administration positions that have a lesser chance of seeing action. However, both can serve in a combat zone. Other occupation specialties include cooks, medics, reporters, truck drivers and helicopter mechanics–the list goes on. Having assumptions about one’s service can limit the potential of the student and can greatly diminish the connection they make with the faculty member or University.
Second, what it is. Military experience, is just that, experience! Our society often places an unnecessarily high value on military service. Today’s military services members are all volunteers who have willfully entered into a contract with the US government. Of course, their service needs to be respected and honored; however, it should not lead us to blind patriotic beliefs that all military and veteran students are the same. Those are assumptions that should not be made.
Lastly, how does military service experience differ from traditional college life? The best way to understand this question is to ask the student veteran directly, yourself. My point being that all service members are people (individuals) first and how they see their experience is based off their core values and beliefs, not our own assumptions or generalizations about what military life is/service is like.
Here is a tip to help get you started: when speaking with any veteran, not just a student, incorporate these kinds of opened-ended questions into your conversation.
- Can you tell me more about why you decided to serve in the military?
- Why did you choose the branch you served in?
The answers to these questions will give you insight into how that particular student’s military experience shapes who they are as a person and how they differ from a traditional college student. From there, you can begin taking steps for engaging this unique individual in an engaging learning experience.
Lee’s reflection begins thinking through how we might both serve and be served by our veteran and military students in our teaching and learning endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in considering this population as one of many that make Duquesne University a unique place to teach, learn, and work.
One place to continue this conversation is at the upcoming talk by Elizabeth R. Barker, who will present Military and Veteran Culture across the Education, Practice, and Research Continuum.” Details and additional resources below.
For more information about how Duquesne engages and supports military and veteran students, see the following resources.
Miller, R. S., Accamando, D., & Wagner, L. (May 12, 2017). Collaboration between an Academic Library and Campus Partners to Connect with Military and Veteran Students. Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice, 5, 1, 35-41.