Skip to main content
Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching student veterans: Listening to student voices

Have you listened to student veterans lately?

If so, you’re aware that student veterans are a diverse group that bring a broad range of experiences, interests and needs to campus.
One of the most important things instructors can do to include student veterans in our courses is to listen to them. Below are excerpts from a conversation between four student veterans — many of whom are student leaders — about their experiences with faculty and instructors here at the UW.

Chris Wigley, Lindsay Church, Ben Wiselogle and Joanna Kresge initially shared their perspectives at the 2014 “Including All Students: Teaching Student Veterans” workshop, where faculty and students in attendance urged CTL to share the discussion campus-wide.

While Chris, Lindsay, Ben and Joanna each remarked that they would never attempt to represent all student veterans at the UW, they have agreed to share some of their experiences with the aim of broadening instructors’ knowledge and abilities to effectively include student veterans.

What can instructors do to support student veterans in their classrooms?

Challenge stereotypes about student veterans

Chris Wigley, graduate student, Foster School of Business:

Each of our backgrounds are vastly different and our experiences vary tremendously. It’s important to recognize that two people could potentially have the exact same experience, but walk away with completely different perspectives.

I believe the biggest challenge facing veterans is getting others to see past their preconceived notions. While I want to benefit from all of the positive stereotypes associated with being a veteran and downplay all of the negative stereotypes, the truth is that we are all just individuals who were in the military. Some veterans are shining examples of the positive stereotypes, some veterans are glaring examples of the negative and others don’t “fit the mold” whatsoever.

Recognize that student veterans bring a diverse range of experience, expertise and leadership

Ben Wiselogle, graduate student, Evans School Of Public Affairs:

Like other non-traditional students with real world experience, I think that student veterans can provide wider perspectives in the classroom. We’ve seen and done things that allows us to tie the course material to actual experiences, as opposed to leaving it on the page of the textbook.

Additionally, and this isn’t for every veteran, we can model more professional and disciplined behavior in the classroom. For many of us, leadership has been ingrained in us from very young ages. Again, I do not think that making statements like “every vet is a leader” are productive, but in many ways we are natural mentors and can serve that role in the classroom with proper communication with our professors.

 

Lindsay Church, graduate student, Jackson School of International Studies:

I think that Ben’s point that not every veteran is a leader is important as no two people are the same. Each of our experiences have been unique to who we are, what we did in the military, and how we responded to the things we were called to do. That being said, we as veterans have existed in an environment where we were each pushed to meet and exceed the expectations of what we were tasked with. Given that, we know how to perform under pressure and to do what we are asked to do, when we are asked to do it. This discipline was ingrained in us as people and is a part of who we are. Finding a way to draw upon that experience gives us the opportunity to contribute uniquely in the classroom and on campus.

 

Joanna M. Kresge, undergraduate student, Communications:

I am fortunate enough to be working towards a degree that coincides with the work I did in the military so I feel that I bring a lot of experience to the classroom and I sometimes like to share that experience with my class. After all, when I was active duty, I was always trying to train and teach my Airmen, why not do the same for my fellow students?

 

Create space for veterans to contribute their expertise to your class

Chris Wigley, graduate student, Foster School of Business:

I echo the points made by both Ben and Lindsay that veterans can bring a unique perspective and sense of maturity to the classroom.  Having said that, I think it is important for professors to create the space for veterans to share their experience if/when it is relevant.  Many veterans (albeit, not all) are happy to share their experiences with others but often times need to be prompted.

In my opinion, the best thing professors (and fellow classmates) can do is to talk with the veteran one-on-one and get to know them as a person; if they are comfortable with sharing their experiences, then I would try to include them in the conversation during class if/when their experience seemed relevant.

 

Ben Wiselogle, graduate student, Evans School Of Public Affairs:

For me personally, the best thing that a professor did to make me feel like a contributing member of the classroom was to challenge me. Because of my experiences and my maturity, the professor clearly stated that they would be expecting more of me than my peers. This made me feel like performing up to high standards was the only course of action.

Looking back on those simple conversations, I am grateful that I wasn’t coddled or looked at like an aberration but someone with the abilities to set the pace and produce work that was exceedingly good, not just good enough.

 

Joanna M. Kresge, undergraduate student, Communication:

I have to echo Ben here, I enjoy being challenged. After all I’ve seen and done, I do need to be challenged and pushed. This may not be the case for every professor and every veteran. The point here is give that person a little bit more to strive for, most of us thrive in these types of situations and we appreciate the push.

I think my fellow veterans all made good points regarding every veteran being different but I will say that most vets who don’t want to talk about it, aren’t going to talk about it. I offer my background and experience up on the first day of class because I want to give that information freely, not only to the professor but to my peers so they know that they might be able to seek me out for a real-world example or guidance. I enjoy being someone who can offer that perspective. If a veteran doesn’t want people to know, they aren’t going to offer the information to begin with. I actually had one professor thank me at the end of the quarter because he’d been out of the field for years and I brought a new, fresher perspective and he really loved that I was able to share that with the class. I was floored when he pulled me aside on the last day of class and shook my hand and thanked me for my contributions. It really can go a long way.

 

Lindsay Church, graduate student, Jackson School of International Studies:

In my experiences at UW, something that a few professors have done that made me feel included in class as a veteran has been to draw upon my experiences as a veteran in certain conversations. Being an international studies major and focusing on the Middle East, my experience as a Persian linguist in the Navy oftentimes ties directly into some of the things that we discuss in many of my classes regularly. Professors of mine have given me the chance to speak about my experiences and the things that I have seen and supported me when I chose to offer my opinion. Through these small validations, these professors afforded me the space to speak and encouraged me to share about my experiences.

 

Chris Wigley, graduate student, Foster School of Business:

I had an Ethics class where the professor solicited stories on “Ethical Leadership” that students had witnessed. A Navy veteran in my class raised his hand and shared a profound story of his Captain turning the ship around, against orders, to get a sailor back to shore to handle a devastating family emergency. My classmate explained that after the incident, the Captain did not promote to the next rank and may have essentially sacrificed his career to do what he felt was right.  This story left the classroom dead silent.  Then, the professor said “thank you for sharing that story.”

The two actions that I felt were pivotal in making veterans in the class feel included were:  

  • Simply creating the space for veterans to share their experience; and
  • Expressing gratitude for the veteran’s contribution

On a separate note: I feel like this example illustrates the contribution that veterans can make in the classroom. This story ultimately prompted rich classroom discussion that touched on every lesson from the course. While not every veteran’s classroom contribution is going to be like this one, I believe it shows the value of perspective gained from a “non-traditional” background such as serving in the military.

Support student veterans in navigating challenges

Joanna M. Kresge, undergraduate student, Communication:

I think that the biggest challenge I’ve faced thus far is accommodation. In that I think most professors don’t necessarily see the non-traditional students. I think it’s important for them to keep in mind that there are still many students who have to commute from great distances to get to class every day. They may or may not have children which means childcare is an issue as well. This isn’t necessarily a veteran-specific problem as it can apply to other non-traditional students but I think it’s important to think about all the same.

For this reason I think that teachers who want to better accommodate veterans should refrain from making events outside of normal class times mandatory. Coming to campus on nights and weekends might be easy for students in the dorms who only have to walk across campus, but for us it’s very difficult because of the distance and childcare.

For this reason, I would also suggest that professors consider non-traditional students when forming groups in class. I most often get grouped with traditional students who live on or near campus and they want to meet at really crazy times on campus and it’s just not something I can do. So I run the risk of not participating in group activities or having to sacrifice to get to the meeting. If professors grouped more non-traditional students together it would be easier for that group to coordinate among themselves and veterans and other non-traditional students don’t feel like the odd man out.

 

Ben Wiselogle, graduate student, Evans School Of Public Affairs:

For me personally, I had an excellent experience at UW Bothell. From Chancellor Chan’s administration, to the staff, faculty and student leadership, I genuinely felt that the University was committed to ensuring that veterans had a good experience.

The only major issue I saw in the classroom was when violent imagery was shown in a public health class (the movie Waltz with Bashir) with no communication beforehand. Due to this lack of a warning, a student veteran who had seen combat was triggered and he suffered through momentary flashbacks and had to excuse himself from the room. This was a completely preventable occurrence, and after working with the department, the professor and the student veteran, I am confident that this won’t become a pattern and will remain an isolated incident. This does highlight the need for clear communication between students and their faculty.

Lastly, as many student veterans are non-traditional students, family and work obligations often create challenges for student vets. Through supportive groups on campus, many of these issues can be mitigated.

You can find more resources on teaching student veterans at: