What Veterans Bring to the Classroom

A few years ago, there was a student in my class named Josh. Josh stood out to me on the first day. He was “not like the others.” His arms were covered in tattoos, and his hairline showed years beyond that of his peers. As Josh was walking out of class on the first day, I said to him, “Thank you for your service. How long were you in the Marines?” He stopped abruptly and said, “How did you know that?” I told him I was a sailor and had spent enough time with Marines that I could smell them a mile away. He laughed at the jab and we chatted about our shared experiences.

Over the next few weeks I got to know Josh and to admire his creativity and work ethic. I also grew disappointed that he seemed disengaged during class discussions. He sat quietly, but when I called on him to speak, his classmates stopped texting and listened to every word he said. I told Josh privately that the other students respected him. I told him I wanted him to step up as a leader, and that’s exactly what he did. Josh led group assignments, shared his experience, and connected with his younger classmates. With his thoughtful contributions, Josh made my class a better learning environment.

Why am I telling you about Josh? Because when we talk about college for veterans, too often the conversation focuses on the challenges they face on campus. What about the strengths that student veterans bring to the classroom? Here are a few:

Diversity

Too often colleges view diversity in terms of race, gender, and native country. What about diversity in experience? Education has the greatest impact when diverse perspectives collide and create a shared learning experience. Josh wasn’t just older than his classmates; he had experiences that created a perspective unlike any other in the class.

Worldview

Combat wasn’t the only thing Josh experienced in the Marine Corps. He worked security at the U.S. Embassy in Russia. He had visited 17 countries and served on various humanitarian relief missions. Josh had seen the world through others' eyes.

I once spoke with a professor of meteorology who was hosting a discussion about the 2011 Tsunami in Japan. She was trying to articulate what it must have been like. It turns out that a student of hers was a Navy helicopter crewman who flew relief missions following the tsunami. He chimed in and explained the devastation right down to the smell. Some students have read about world events and others have participated in them. Veterans bring with them a worldview that can enrich any class.

Service

Serving others is deeply embedded in the veteran culture. Just because we leave the military doesn’t mean we want to stop serving others. At the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I teach, there is a program called “Ice Busters.” The Ice Busters remove snow from the driveways of senior citizens in the early morning, following a snowstorm. The director told me it’s nearly impossible to get traditional college students to show up at 7 a.m. in the cold. He also told me that after one phone call to the veterans club, he had all the volunteers he needed. A commitment to philanthropy makes any community a better place, and student veterans bring the spirit of service with them to college campuses as well.

So: what’s Josh doing now? He moved to Norway, where he is starting an organic grocery store with his wife. Josh is an entrepreneur whose new mission is health and wellness for his community. This Veterans Day, there will undoubtedly be discussion on campus regarding how the college can "help veterans." Perhaps a better topic would be how veterans can help the college.

Happy Veterans Day!