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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

Hearing, Not Just Listening To, Student Veterans: A Review of Two Web-Based Initiatives

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Mariana Grohowski

Abstract: Although student veterans comprise just four percent of the population of undergraduate students, this number is expected to grow as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to come to a close (“Out”). In recent years, higher education has become increasingly concerned with accommodating this emerging, diverse, and vulnerable population of students. This review essay discusses two Web-based initiatives that advocate for and about student veterans transitioning to higher education: In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans and From Combat to Kentucky. Specifically, this review essay discusses how these two digital projects provide educators, administrators, and students (both civilian and veteran) the invaluable opportunity to hear the unique experiences and needs of student veterans in higher education. Hearing such stories can contribute to teachers and students’ learning practices by fostering identification with student veterans, despite our differences, while affording teachers and students a way of increasing our understanding of military culture and its large role in our nation’s present, past, and future cultural contexts.

From Combat to Kentucky. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, 2012. Online Video. 16 Dec. 2012. <>.

In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans. Prod. Ester Schwartz-McKinzie. Dir. Imani Muleyyar. Montgomery College Television, 2011. YouTube Video. 16 Dec. 2012. <>.

In the recent article Scrambling to Understand Veterans Paul Fain notes that although more than “2 million veterans” are cashing in on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to pursue a college education, only “one in four colleges report having a detailed understanding of why veteran students drop out” before earning a college degree (para. 4-5). Until recently, institutional researchers have largely overlooked the need to understand student veterans’ retention and success in higher education. Fortunately, some have taken the initiative to inform non-veterans (students, teachers, administrators, etc.) about the unique issues student veterans face as they transition from the culture of the military to the cultures of the civilian world and the college campus (see Hart and Thompson; Valentino).

Two Web-based projects leading the initiative to inform post-secondary faculty and administration about the needs of student veterans are the online videos In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans, a twenty-one minute video advocating for student veterans, and the oral history project From Combat to Kentucky (C2Ky). From Combat to Kentucky is a digital oral history archive of twenty-four individual video interviews with student veterans. A doctoral student veteran, David T. Vacchi, provides exigency for these Web-based projects when he states, “It is crucial for educational professionals to understand student veterans, because student veterans can mask their own needs even if they are simple to address” (18). Thus, these projects offer administrators, faculty, and students the unique opportunity to listen to and hear student veterans explain their experiences during and post-service. In doing so, the voices in these Web-based projects suggest ways writing classrooms and college campuses could be more “veteran / military friendly.” Indeed, they point to ways writing instructors can foster more inclusive learning environments not only for student veterans, but also for all students by being more receptive to students’ unique experiences and expertise.

In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans and From Combat to Kentucky are not the only Web-based projects about and for veterans. The Service Project catalogues the narratives of military service-personnel and Peace Corps volunteers. The Veterans History Project, sponsored by The Library of Congress, archives personal narratives of veterans from America in a variety of modes. NPR’s Story Corps’ Military Voices Initiative collects the stories of men and women serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and the Women in Military Service Memorial Oral History archive offers a limited collection of written excerpts from women veterans’ personal narratives. Although archiving the stories of veterans is not new, the distinction between other projects and the initiatives In Their Own Words and From Combat to Kentucky is that the latter two have an explicit focus on the experiences and needs of student veterans in higher education.

The exigency for teachers, administrators, and students (civilian and veteran alike) to listen to the narratives of this unique and emerging population of students is significant. Consider the argument of veteran and writer Jonathan Raab; in the last sentences of his article, Raab provides legitimacy for the projects In Their Own Words and From Combat to Kentucky by offering an explanation of why veterans remain silent about their military experiences post-service: “Like so many of our problems, sometimes it’s better just not to talk about it. That’s especially true when the reality of home is that you have become invisible, and your work, your profession and your entire way of life are suddenly of little consequence to the average American” (para. 15-16). Raab’s most compelling statement comes in his conclusion: “Ignoring the war—ignoring us, or ignoring our fears…does our nation no good” (para. 29). Raab’s editorial provides exigency for accessing Web-based projects like In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans and From Combat to Kentucky, which provide unique opportunities for educators, administrators, and citizens to understand the needs and experiences of this increasing student population, many of whom choose to remain silent.

Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson’s research on student veterans reveals the overwhelming reality that 92% (of surveyed) post-secondary composition faculty and administrators have not received “training for understanding veterans’ issues in the writing classroom” (8). The lack of training about veterans’ needs in the writing classrooms reflects the more general findings of a Pew Research study that revealed a cultural divide, what they term “The Military-Civilian Gap.” It reported 77% of veterans and 71% of civilians believe that “the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military.” This gap can create significant tension in any classroom, let alone writing classrooms, which often have capped enrollments and require significant peer interaction. However, projects like those reviewed here can help bridge that gap.

In Their Own Words, Montgomery Student Veterans

Libby Sander wrote about the student veterans of Montgomery College of Rockville, Maryland, and their twenty-one minute video for The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2012. As Sander explains, Ester Schwartz-McKinzie, an English professor at Montgomery [Community] College, used a semester sabbatical to create the documentary In Their Own Words, Montgomery College Student Veterans, after learning about the more than 250,000 student veterans seeking higher education at community colleges and for-profit institutions in 2010 (In). Sander explains that Dr. Schwartz-McKinzie “spent two months interviewing 20 veterans” (para. 16-17) for the purpose of informing administrators and faculty about the challenges, needs, and opinions of student veterans transitioning from military service to the classroom. The result of Schwartz-McKinzie’s efforts is a short video that provides an overview about the issues these student veterans faced. Although the video dredges up many questions about responsibilities of educators and administrators, it also provides compelling answers and feasible solutions directly from ten Montgomery College student veterans (nine men, one woman). By the end of the film, viewers have an idea of what they can do to help student veterans be successful.

The video begins with the ten student veterans speaking in turn about their various motivations for joining the military. The focus shifts to veterans’ emotions and experiences while deployed, including boredom, loneliness, and fear. Then the veterans explain their processes of discharging from the military and the more difficult process of transitioning from the structured environment of the military to the unstructured civilian world and especially to the ambiguous environment of college. Many describe these experiences as a kind of culture shock, stating “that there were no rules to follow” and that they had “to rebuild from the ground up.” One student veteran eloquently states, “the real battle is coming home.”

The video also features Christopher Buser, Clinical Director of Post Deployment Reintegration Programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs of the Maryland Health Care System. Buser reveals that veterans have the greatest difficulty gaining back trust in humanity upon coming home from a warzone. Therefore, support and direction are essential to veterans’ success at reintegration, though many veterans may fight both. Buser is not the only voice offering suggestions for student veteran support; each of the ten student veterans interviewed elucidate that student veterans need direction, guidance, advice, connection, and communication. Perhaps the most important take away is that we must listen to student veterans—advice offered nineteen minutes and forty-one seconds into the video. However, I would go further and argue that we need to do more than listen to veterans; we also need to hear what they are saying.

Listening and hearing are distinct activities. Hearing is crucial to ensuring student veterans get the assistance they need to be successful in and beyond college. Krista Ratcliffe’s methodology of “rhetorical listening” requires “strategic idealism when listening with the intent to understand. The idealism is strategic in that we should recognize the difficulty and dangers inherent in such a project . . . and proceed knowingly” (205). Essentially, Ratcliffe posits that there is risk involved for both the listener and the speaker: hearing entails responsibility and action, while speaking causes the speaker to be vulnerable. As citizens, administrators, and educators, we need to create opportunities to listen, to hear, and to allow student veterans to speak about their needs and experiences.

How we might do such is embodied by the work of the Montgomery College student veterans, who provide a framework for encouraging faculty to actually hear their students. By using statistics, expert opinion, and, most importantly, student voices to demonstrate the pressing need for faculty awareness of student veterans, this video argues that “Faculty need to: (1) Make expectations clear for student veterans, (2) Be patient, (3) Be available, (4) Have an open door policy, (5) Show genuine care for students, and (6) Make an effort to get to know students with diverse backgrounds.” A pedagogical approach designed with many, if not all, of the above suggestions would not only benefit student veterans but any student (Leonhardy 334-35). Perhaps the increase of student veterans on campus is a contingency that will ultimately move educators and administrators to foster more inclusive learning environments for all students.

As Hart and Thompson elucidate, writing studies faculty can work toward these goals by offering a “syllabus statement” that directs veterans to relevant campus resources (12). Similarly, Marilyn Valentino recommends implementing a composition pedagogy based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to accommodate not only student veterans, but our many students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities (estimates reveal 11% of college students have diagnosed disabilities; 70% have “non-apparent” and oftentimes unreported disabilities [Valentino 367]). UDL is based on a concept of course design aimed “to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Connell et al. 1).

UDL has three principles that easily complement any composition pedagogy: (1) Multiple Methods of Representation (i.e., instructors can use a range of teaching methods to give students of various learning styles an opportunity to comprehend course content and build knowledge), (2) Multiple Means of Student Action and Expression (i.e., instructors give students the opportunity to demonstrate acquired knowledge of course content through activities and assignments of varied genres and in various modes of representation [e.g., multimodal assignments]), and (3) Multiple Modes of Student Engagement (i.e., instructors vary student opportunities for engaging with course content to acquire knowledge of academic writing) (2). A UDL approach to composition pedagogy benefits all students with its goal to “eliminate the barriers from the learning environment” (Universal 2).

From Combat to Kentucky (C2Ky)

Since 1973, The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries has been documenting veterans’ stories (About C2Ky). But in 2010, Doug Boyd, the Director of the Louie B. Nunn Center and creator of C2Ky project, began documenting the personal narratives of the growing population of student veterans at the University of Kentucky. In the thirteen-minute video About From Combat to Kentucky, Boyd explains that these personal interviews (oral histories) provide “a chance to document stories as veterans are transitioning into higher education.” C2Ky is designed to appeal not only to other veterans but also to civilian educators, administrators, and students interested in understanding this emerging and vulnerable population. The About C2Ky video provides a critical resource advocating for the importance of listening and archiving the stories of student veterans for those speaking and those listening.

C2Ky is an ongoing project that currently consists of twenty-four individual interviews with student veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (four women and twenty men). As Boyd explains in the video About C2Ky, C2Ky was designed in the hopes of serving as “a model to take to other universities, to document veteran experiences as they reintegrate and transition.” Teacher-scholars are encouraged to consider implementing veteran oral history projects at their own institutions, work I will personally begin doing with my students at my institution this fall. Additionally, Cate St. Pierre of The Ohio State University has taken up this work via the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN).

C2Ky interviews are organized by veterans’ names and are also tagged and categorized by subject. For example, Annette L. Bickett’s oral history interview is tagged with some of the subjects she discusses during her forty-two minute interview (e.g., Marine Corps and Operation Iraqi Freedom). Additionally, the personal interview page of each participant includes a short written biography and a number of personal photographs (featuring the veteran while enlisted, deployed, etc.). Each video interview shares similar film techniques: the interviewer can be faintly heard in the background of the interviews, and editing of the videos is minimal. The interview questions serve as prompts for the student veteran to share the details of his/her military experience—before, during and after service.

Each interview manifests a range of emotions in both the speaker and his/her listeners. In the case of Annett Bickett’s interview, Bickett conveys the emotions of excitement about getting deployed to Fallujah, sadness when losing one of her friends, and anger when explaining the injustice of the warfare in Iraq and the Iraqis’ weapon of choice, the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), crafted from “improvised” consumer electronics such as a cellphones or timers. As Bickett laments, the warfare she and her comrades experienced in Iraq “was not fair because we couldn’t fight back.” Later in the interview Bickett discusses her decision to leave the Marine Corps and her experience transitioning out of the military. She explains the differences surrounding learning and studying in the Marine Corps and in college.

Perhaps the most important take away from Bickett’s interview is her wish that if and when civilians have the opportunity to meet a veteran, they take time to have a conversation; as she puts it: “It doesn’t have to be about their service, but it is important [for civilians] to be exposed to” the veteran experience. Bickett’s claim sends a message of support for the pedagogical use of projects like C2Ky and In Their Own Words that provide listeners an opportunity to begin to understand military culture and possibly war, and provide understanding as to why transitioning back to civilian life and college afterwards is so challenging.

Implications and Closing Thoughts

In 2003 the Conference on College Composition and Communication resolved to “encourage teachers of writing and communication at colleges and universities . . . to engage students and others in learning and debate about the issues and implications of the Iraqi war and any other acts of war perpetrated by the United States of America” (2003). Additionally, Marilyn Valentino reminds us, “As teachers of writing, we know we are often the first point of contact [for student veterans]” (368). Thus, in theory our field has noted the importance of hearing student veterans for students and teachers of writing. Furthermore, Valentino (calling upon the advice of writer and veteran Joe Lamb) notes, “[Lamb] suggests that the act of compassionate listening will be our ‘charge in the future’” (368). How we do that will likely vary based on any number of factors, but engaging with web projects that aim for facilitating effective transitions from military to academic life is a first step for instructors.

Hearing those projects allows instructors to frame questions to ask of their own students, to rethink their own pedagogy based on the words of a population that sometimes needs assistance. From Combat to Kentucky and In Their Own Words offer administrators, faculty, and students (veteran and civilian) an opportunity to learn from student veterans’ experiences and expertise. These projects give voice to the diverse experiences of military service-personnel and provide opportunities for veterans to be heard.

I have two recommendations for writing projects that might emerge after listening and hearing these videos: (1) In Brett Holden’s The Veteran Project, which asks students to research and construct an interview project with a veteran who is friend or family member, students are provided with a set of Human Subject Review Board approved questions, which lays the foundation for their research essay (Holden 8). Additionally, students could compose multimodal projects (videos, podcasts) from their veteran interviews. (2) Students might compose “compare / contrast” essays in which they juxtapose the veterans’ testimonials from In Their Own Words and From Combat to Kentucky with popular culture representations of veterans in film and television. In Their Own Words and From Combat to Kentucky offer civilians a genuine and feasible way to learn about and from veterans; these projects provide a genuine and feasible way for us all to begin “supporting our troops” during a time for which veterans are virtually (but not completely [see TAP]) unprepared during their military training: life after the military.

Works Cited

2003 CCCC Resolutions. Conference on College Composition and Communication. NCTE, 22 Mar. 2003. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>.

About CYK2. From Combat to Kentucky. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, 2012. Online Video. 16 Dec. 2012. <>.

An Interview with Annette Bickett. From Combat to Kentucky. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, 9 Dec. 2010. Online Video. 16 Dec. 2012. <>.

Connell, Bettye Rose, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, and Gregg Vanderheiden. The Principles of Universal Design. Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University. 2007. 27 May 2013. Web. <>.

Fain, Paul. Scrambling to Understand Veterans. Colleges Fail to Track Performance of Veterans, Survey Finds. Inside Higher Ed, 4 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012. <>.

Hart, Alexis D., and Roger Thompson. ‘An Ethical Obligation’: Promising Practices for Student Veterans in College Writing Classrooms. National Council of Teachers of English. June 2013. Web. 16 June 2013. <>

Holden, Brett. Syllabus of THFM 2900: War, Film, and the Soldier Experience. Bowling Green State University, 2011. 1-12. Print.

Leonhardy, Galen. Transformations: Working with Veterans in the Composition Classroom. Teaching English in the Two Year College 36.4 (2009): 339-342. Print.

The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections. Pew Social & Demographic Trends. 23 Nov. 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2013. <>.

Out of Uniform: At Half a Million and Counting, Veterans Cash in on Post-9/11 GI Bill. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 11 March 2012. n.pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Raab, Jonathan. It’s Time to Talk About What Troops Leave Unsaid. At War Blog: Notes From the Front Lines. The New York Times. 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <>.

Ratcliffe, Krista. "Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a 'Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.'" College Composition and Communication. 51.2 (Dec. 1999): 195-224. Print.

Sander, Libby. Veterans Journey From ‘Combat to College’ on a Maryland Campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 April 2012. n.pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Transition Assistance Online, January. 2013. 21 May 2013. <>.

Universal Design for Learning: A Concise Introduction. ACCESS Project, Colorado State University. 2011. 27 May 2013. 1-4. Web. <>.

Vacchi, David T. "Considering Student Veterans on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus." About Campus. (May-June 2012): 15-21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Valentino, Marilyn J. 2010 CCCC Chair’s Address: Rethinking the Fourth C: Call to Action. College Composition and Communication 62.2 (2010): 364-78. Print.

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