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Veterans contribute unique skills, experiences to the classroom

Meredith Martin

​As the number of veterans enrolling at U.S. community colleges continues to climb, our role will grow increasingly more vital, meaning it will require more work or at least a different approach.

Most people might not like taking on more or new roles. But for me, serving these students is a pleasure.

Veterans are extraordinary students. Whether they are in veterans-only classes or in traditional classes, student veterans bring certain unique qualities to the classroom that professors cherish.

I do not view the American serviceman as broken. Many student veterans have been deployed and they might have service-related issues, but that does not preclude them from being academically successful. If we focus on them as students, we are giving them the opportunity to succeed.

Most of these individuals just want to acquire an education. For them, it is about the next stage in their careers. I believe as professors we have a role to fulfill in providing them with the education they were promised.

Esprit de corps

One thing that is striking in a class of veterans is the esprit de corps or instant camaraderie. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and it occurs within the first week of class. While they might have served in different branches of the military, there is an immediate connection and respect among them.

Reflecting on veterans of previous, current wars

Most student veterans are nontraditional. They have a different level of expectations because they already had one career. They bring that professionalism into the classroom. They like the structure of a well-ordered classroom and appreciate knowing the goals of the instructor. I teach structured classes and give clear instructions, so it is a perfect fit.

Student veterans have an inherent respect for professors and administrators, a respect for authority that is not intrinsic in all freshmen. Even if they do not like the class or do not share your opinion, they are respectful. They also appreciate mutual respect for dissenting opinions and professors’ unbiased approach to topics, such as political issues. One student veteran told me, “I really appreciate how you handled that topic. I don’t even know what your opinion is.”

A global experience

Student veterans bring a different level of real-world experience to the collegiate classroom. It is great having them in a course—especially with 18-year-olds—because their global experience is remarkably valuable. Service to your country brings about a greater level of maturity and understanding. Student veterans have a different opinion of global affairs, foreign policy, government and issues of entitlement than their traditionally aged peers. They have been in some of the poorest nations in the world, and they can explain to younger students why they may not have it as bad as they think they do.

Student veterans also take responsibility when they take on a job. They believe it is their role to see it through. They have a sense of unity. They look out for their peers and those coming behind them. This concern for others compels them to serve in student leadership roles. Student veterans have a trained sense or inherent drive to lead when given the opportunity. It is innate for them to share helpful information with the person beside them and those who will follow in their footsteps.

Veterans help peers achieve their educational goals

Student veterans come with years of experience and military training, and now they are adding formal education. They can manage themselves and their teams under pressure. They understand the significance of relying on training at a crucial moment or in an emergency situation. They also have the ability to work as a cohesive unit and respect the chain of command. Student veterans have many of the tools necessary to be disciplined students, and institutions of higher education can serve a great role in helping them parlay military experience into academic success.

Beyond the classroom

Qualities such as high expectations, respect, experience, commitment ethic and the ability to perform well under pressure are appreciated in the classroom and on the job. Most traditional employees who have just graduated from college do not have an amalgamation of these qualities. Who wouldn’t want a physician who worked as a medic in the military and then attended medical school? This doctor can maintain composure under stressful situations.

We have a role to play in helping student veterans truly become the best versions of themselves as they enter the civilian workforce. Just as we have special opportunities in honors or service learning, I believe we should have special opportunities for student veterans. Our role as educators is to help them use their benefits to the fullest. They’ve earned them, and it is our responsibility to give them all the tools they need to be academically successful.

More veterans are returning to college today than at any other time in history. It is exciting to be part of an educational opportunity that we haven’t seen since the close of World War II. This educational opportunity has the power to transform our society. People who may not have had the chance to attend college are in classes because of the GI bill.

We continually ask how we can support our soldiers, and I think this is the answer to that question. Student veterans have sacrificed too much for us to fail at this objective.

Martin is a professor of history at Collin College in Texas.