From Military to Civilian Life Reaching Veterans in the Classroom

Omar Lopez Hispanic Outlook Magazine september

Dr. Omar Lopez saw a wave of patriotism that flowed from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, even though it was one of the poorest counties in the U.S.  His father, grandfather and other relatives served in the Armed Forces during several wars. With the examples they set, Lopez’s daily observations of veterans’ experiences and well-being left a definitive mark on his career decisions. His vision became clear: to confront society’s most vulnerable populations—Hispanics, military veterans and adult students at risk—and make a difference for them.
“The men in my family never really spoke deeply of their experience,” Lopez said. “The life experiences and stories they shared as I grew up instilled in me a respect and admiration for veterans—men and women—who have made the greatest sacrifice to defend our freedom and American way of life.” 
Often times, veterans have a difficult transition to that way of life, to a civilian way of life. The transition from non-college life to an academic one adds another layer of complexity.  “Our department began receiving more veteran students in 2010, around the time the military was beginning to downsize from overseas deployment. I noticed that not much was available to support veteran students, especially for those with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).” 

Vets in transitions—they’re lost. Student veterans remain at risk for academic success. What we do in our teaching contributes to students’ learning in the classroom, but how we do our teaching is what makes the difference to students’ academic success.
— Antonio Dr. Omar Lopez, professor n the Department of Occupational, Workforce, and Leadership Studies in the College of Applied Arts at Texas State University

As a professor in the Department of Occupational, Workforce, and Leadership Studies in the College of Applied Arts at Texas State University, Lopez focused on veterans and their needs in his classes. He noted how professors’ teaching strategies and practices within the context of students’ learning needs was lacking. They were less in tune for veterans. 
“Vets in transitions—they’re lost,” Lopez explained. “Student veterans remain at risk for academic success. What we do in our teaching contributes to students’ learning in the classroom, but how we do our teaching is what makes the difference to students’ academic success.” 
Lopez who teaches entrepreneurship, work-based learning and supervised field-based student projects, believes that to be conscientious of veteran students and their needs, faculty have a responsibility to create learning environments where all students can be self-motivated to achieve academic success. However, faculty must first identify their individual philosophy of teaching.  
A common interest in veterans’ well-being brought together Lopez, Dr. Stephan Springer, an Associate Professor and former department chair who also served as a Colonel in the Texas State Guard; and Jeffrey Nelson, a graduate student completing a research study on the use of service dogs as an intervention for veterans with PTSD. 
They delved into the five principles of effective instructional practice identified by the National Research Council (NRC). Their research produced Veterans in the College Classroom: Guidelines for Instructional Practices. Drawing on cognitive, developmental and educational psychology, and brain research on how people learn, they connected how the five principles create effective learning among students. “The core of these principles tap into our very nature of who we are as human beings—social-seeking animals capable of constructing from prior experiences new learning through meaningful knowledge in a variety of contexts guided by relevant feedback.” 
The principles should be grounded in four broad reflection categories: teaching and learning, goals, students and self. “Only by knowing one’s values, beliefs and expectations as a teacher can we become fully aware of our students and their learning needs.” 
Teachers Can:
•    Connect students’ learning to previous experiences (introduce new material in a familiar context).
•    Socialize the classroom learning experience (a buddy system or team work is better than individual work; inter-reliance among service members to support each other is strong). 
•    Differentiate the instructional context (visual, auditory, interactive, print-oriented, tactile, kinesthetic and olfactory learning styles).
•    Prepare connected, organized and relevant material (keeps them focused and on task).
•    Schedule feedback and active evaluations (helps define strengths, vulnerabilities, values, dreams and fears). 

Awareness First

Take the time to learn which students are veterans. Realize some vets can react strongly to teaching strategies that act like triggers. These can be as innocent as showing a World War II documentary or banging on a desk to get attention. Awareness of differences in veteran students that are sometimes confused with deviance or that something is wrong can set them up for failure. “We believe nothing is wrong with student veterans that the practice of NRC principles cannot overcome,” Lopez said.
It is a matter of practicing a philosophy of teaching that improves awareness of potential needs. For example, body language, behavior and/or physical conditions such as profuse sweating or panting for air, may require special medical assistance. Classroom management rules that allow students to leave to attend to personal matters relieve stress. Poor or late attendance, outbursts or incoherent discourse in class, or late submissions of assignments may need referrals to additional resources. Sometimes medications factor in. Many students with PTSD and some with other disorders are on psychotropic medications that have all kinds of benefits but also disadvantages that become debilitating, Lopez said. 

Setting Vets up for Success

Returning to school is a major shift in veterans’ lives and way of thinking. Even though most veterans tend not to ask for help, when professors articulate clearly what’s expected in the class, the chance for success is greater, Lopez explained.
“How and when we do communicate with students matters. They have to have a purpose behind that academic pathway.” 
This success goes beyond the classroom and can affect their careers, health, relationships and opportunity to give back to the community.  Professors are responsible for creating a learning environment that is nurturing and in tune to individual needs yet sets high standards. Using online technologies like discussion forums, blogs and email as well as traditional strategies, the students might just transition better as they learn how to work in teams, act, set expectations, approach professors, develop skills and advocate for themselves. 
“At the end of the day, you as instructor can make or break a veteran student’s success,” Lopez said. “Be an authentic teacher and help push them out of the shadows into the light, so potential future employers can see how capable they are.”

Quick Tips

•    Become familiar with military culture. Online sources like Operation College Promise offer relevant info.
•    Familiarize yourself with your institution’s resources and programs for veteran students’ needs, including health issues, academic support and referrals. 
•    Read “Veterans in the Classroom”  •