Veterans in the Classroom
Veterans Day invites those of us who are educators to reflect upon our own roles in helping veterans to transition from their military lives to their civilian lives. I’m certainly not the first commentator to point out that Veterans Day invites such reflection, but I’d like to reiterate and expand upon the excellent advice that Aimee Pozorski offered in her Profhacker post a year ago. The Associated Press recently reported on classes that some universities have begun to offer specifically to help veterans transition into their new roles as students. Personally, I’m in favor of any effort that aims to help veterans make that transition. However, I’m not sure that dedicated, veterans-only classes are necessary in many cases. There is plenty that individual instructors can do on their own to help student veterans.
Too often, though, the veterans on our campuses are invisible. The first step in helping student veterans is recognizing who they are and what issues they face.
Some veterans are most readily identifiable not by their appearance but by their behavior, their military bearing. The protocols that the military drills into recruits are hard to shake. The veterans I’ve taught over the years have, generally speaking, been some of my most organized and on-the-ball students. Other elements of their regimented military lives show through in the classroom as well. Even teaching in the South, where "sirs" and "ma’ams" are de facto when students address their instructors (for better or worse), the veterans in my classes often announce their status as veterans with constant "sir"-ing.
Really, though, there is no guaranteed visible or behavioral way to identify the veterans in your classroom. This is one of many reasons why I always collect data from all of my students about their major, year in school, and extracurricular commitments at the beginning of each semester. I want to have an idea of the other pressures in their lives while students are in my classes. I also ask students on that same confidential, FERPA-protected, voluntary form whether or not they are veterans. If I know that a student is a veteran, I’m in a better position as an instructor to offer help if I see that the student is struggling academically or socially.
Also, don’t assume that the veterans in your classroom are all going to be male. Women are serving in the armed forces at historic numbers, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of the percentage of our armed forces. Because of the changing nature of combat, and the expanding roles of women in the military, female veterans are very nearly as likely as their male counterparts to have experienced firsthand the traumas of war. Unfortunately, because many of us imagine veterans in our own minds as men, female veterans on our campuses can become even more invisible than their male counterparts.
Given the nature of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chances are high that if you do have a veteran in your classroom, he or she has been deployed to a combat theater at least once. And it is practically guaranteed that even if they themselves have not been hurt in combat, they have friends who have been hurt, or worse. There is a lot for a veteran to process after a combat deployment. While the military is making improvements, the fact of the matter is that the current generation of veterans is not receiving the psychological support services that it needs. Know what counseling services your college offers veterans specifically, or students generally, and be prepared to refer students to those services. If you are worried about a student’s safety, it’s best to err on the side of making a referral, rather than ignoring the issue.
In multiple ways, veterans and the nonveterans with whom they share classrooms are not at all peers, even if they are enrolled in the same classes and degree programs. Differences in age, life experience, and worldview can create tension in the classroom. Unfortunately, there is no formula for how to handle these differences. With some awareness and sensitivity on the instructor’s part, though, these same differences in perspective hopefully become assets, adding to the diversity of perspectives represented in our classes. Such differences can potentially help both veterans and nonveterans to gain a broader, more nuanced perspective on the world (or simply the subject of your class) than they might otherwise have an opportunity to develop.
Because they have typically served four or more years in the armed forces, veterans are usually older than most of their classmates, at least at institutions that enroll most of their undergraduates directly from high school. This disparity can be another source of frustration for veterans. While the adjustment from the clearly defined routines of military life to the less structured life of college is itself difficult for some veterans to navigate, the problem is sometimes compounded if they perceive their classmates to be immature, naïve, or lazy. In one case, I had to have a conference with a student veteran because his perception of his peers as naïve was being expressed in the classroom with outright contempt. But just as I would not allow a student to denigrate a veteran for serving in wars of declining popularity, neither will I allow a veteran to denigrate other students with less life experience.
There is no way to generalize how veterans in your classroom will be reacting to and processing their service. Some will want to talk about their experiences, while others will be tight-lipped. On more than one occasion, veterans enrolled in my classes have confided to me that they censored their own participation in discussions because they were annoyed by the oversimplified, naïve terms in which their younger classmates viewed the world, or because they worried that their classmates "couldn’t handle" their own, more worldly, but also more cynical, perspectives.
Veterans, more than any other demographic of student I’ve ever worked with, understand that the world is a confusing, contradictory, and chaotic place. Veterans should never be put on the spot or forced to talk about their military experiences. Conversely, as part of their processing some veterans will sometimes hijack or dominate class discussions, in which cases boundaries for the nature and quantity of class participation need to be set, preferably in private, without calling the student out in front of the class. It’s also important that you don’t try to relate to experiences that you don’t share — if you haven’t been in combat, don’t pretend that you understand what it or its aftermath is like.
If I have one complaint about the veterans I have taught, it is that they have frequently been too deferential to my own authority as an instructor. Veterans are hyper-aware of the hierarchies surrounding them, and often have to be given explicit permission, time and again, to do something as seemingly simple as disagree with the instructor. Military life requires deference to rank and authority. However, in the civilian world, the ability to question others (respectfully of course) is a necessary skill, and one that I have sometimes had to explicitly encourage student veterans to practice.
I think it’s important for us to remember as well that for many veterans, the military has provided their only avenue to college. It is well-established that in the enlisted ranks the military draws a disproportionate percentage of enlistees from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps this explains why veterans are often extremely highly motivated students — many of them have served our nation not only out of a sense of duty, but also as means of securing for themselves an opportunity to obtain a college education.
Veterans who have served in the post-9/11 era have access to substantial education benefits. As you might imagine, though, navigating the red tape necessary in order to claim their benefits can sometimes be a nightmare for student veterans. They may have to spend hours on the phone each semester figuring out their benefits, which sometimes throws their registration status into chaos. What’s worse, the generous tuition benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill have made veterans a lucrative target in the eyes of some for-profit schools that market degrees of questionable credibility. Similarly, many state institutions view veterans merely as revenue-generating opportunities. Unfortunately, not all colleges offer the level of support services on campus that veterans need, even though they actively recruit veterans to their campuses.
There are multiple levels on which veterans require, and deserve, our support. At the institutional level, universities have an ethical obligation to provide staff and support services to help veterans navigate their benefits entitlements, as well as to provide the counseling services that some veterans need in order to successfully reintegrate into educational and civilian environments. Within our classrooms, individual instructors can help veterans by making appropriate accommodations when necessary, and by being both attentive and sensitive to the issues that student veterans face. Finally, if you’re really committed to understanding the dilemmas that veterans face when they reintegrate into not only our classrooms, but into our culture, I highly recommend Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes’s book What It Is Like to Go to War. It is the most thorough, frank account of the psychological issues that our returning veterans face that I have ever encountered, written by a man who truly does understand some of the things that, try as we might, those of us who are not ourselves veterans will never truly understand.