Prerequisite: Experience in War

As veterans try to take advantage of the new GI Bill, Ohio State introduces courses only open to students who've served in the military.
October 22, 2009

Rick Hayek had seen the world, led troops in combat and spent a decade enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. While deployed in Iraq for two tours of duty, he never had a chance to think about what it all meant. Thoughts about civilians’ daily lives, past wars, theories of peace and conflict were so far from his reality that they never stayed in his mind long.

That all changed when he enrolled at Ohio State University last fall as part of the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Program and took “Representations of the Experience of War,” a comparative studies class that used literature, art and film from multiple time periods and regions of the world. “I started to understand parts of the spectrum of war,” he said, “not just our standpoint as members of the military fighting in the war.”

Enrollment in the class was open to students of all backgrounds and, Hayek said, that sometimes hindered the discussions that he and other students with combat experience wanted to have. “It would’ve just been easier, we could’ve been a little freer, if everyone in the class had some kind of military experience.”

Beginning in January, during Ohio State’s winter quarter, only students who are veterans, active duty, guard and reserves will be able to take a specific section of that course – capped at 45 students -- with the goal of fostering “an environment where active duty students and veterans could engage with material on war without having to deal with any possible stigmas about having students in the class who weren’t veterans,” said Susan Hanson, a lecturer in comparative studies and associate in the Center for Folklore Studies who taught Hayek’s class.

Though the course is intended to foster discussion, it won’t be a way for students to absorb cultural works related to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “These students are familiar with those wars,” Hanson said. “We want to get them out of their comfort zones and see that the experiences have been the same in other places at other points in time.”

The winter class will be followed by a spring writing and research military-only course capped at 20 students. “The students will look at materials that are current and have an opportunity to figure out how to represent their experiences,” Hanson said.

Hanson and Dorothy Noyes, director of the folklore center, worked together over the summer to get approval for the courses and to create the Veterans Learning Community, which will oversee the courses and create opportunities for military students to get together to discuss their shared experiences.

Both dismissed criticism that the military-only classes discriminate against non-service members. Military service, they said, is more like a prerequisite experience that would contribute to students' understanding of course materials. The same courses are offered to non-military students and military students may choose to take those versions.

Noyes said that although pulling military students out of the general population taking classes on war might make it seem like non-military students are missing out on hearing firsthand about life in war, the goal is actually to give them a better understanding of those experiences. After military students have “more sheltered conversations in the two-course sequence, we can then have these students as guest lecturers in classes or bring them into public venues,” she said. “We want to use this as a way to get vets more comfortable talking about their experiences with nonvets, whether other students, their families or anyone else.”

The population of students with military experience attending Ohio State is not small; more than 1,200 students are veterans or active service members. More than 300 are receiving benefits this fall under the new GI Bill -- the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act -- while others, like Hayek, are active duty members participating in campus ROTC programs while working toward becoming officers

In the university’s student population of more than 60,000, however, they can get lost and not be appreciated for the experiences they’ve had, Hanson said. “Most of the university’s programs are tailored to students who are coming directly from high school, but these vets and active duty service members have existing knowledge, experience and expertise that they’re bringing in when they first get here.”

Because both courses fulfill general education requirements, Noyes said she hopes many students will take one or both earlier in their time at Ohio State. “We want them to build on their experience and the coursework for the rest of their time at the university,” she said. “For students who have been through an experience that nobody should have to go through, this should be a good transition into academic work … a way for them to take the things they’ve learned on the ground and apply those resources to their academic experiences.”


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