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December 9, 2011

Importance of peers to veteran success

Importance of peers to veteran success

Written by James Schmeling, IVMF Managing Director & Co-founder

I graduated from high school in a small town in Iowa at 3:30 PM one Sunday afternoon and was on a plane headed to basic training in the Air Force at 7:30 that evening. I had joined the Air Force to have opportunities for an education, to travel, for a job, and, frankly, to leave small-town Iowa behind. I thought I would serve for 20 years, retire, go into a technical job, and work until I retired again. My grandfather, my uncles, and other in my family had done that, and it seemed a reasonable option.

My plans changed as a result of several factors. First, I had received college credit for my education in the Air Force from basic training through technical school, and then through additional technical training. Second, in my small organization of about 1000 people, 35 had doctorates in nuclear physics, chemistry or other technical fields, 145 had master’s degrees, 142 had bachelor’s degrees, and 193 had associate’s degrees. Third, and perhaps most important, while serving overseas in a small detachment in Spain I became friends with a group of U.S. foreign exchange students, a few of whom were dependents of active duty military members or Veterans.

A combination of exposure to college through the Community College of the Air Force, to peers in the military with college experience, and to same-age peers who were in college allowed me the opportunity to see that I could go on to complete a bachelor’s degree as well. It was, I think, most important that I be exposed to the last two military peers and same-age peers. When I began college at Iowa State University I sought out peers there as well. Groups of non-traditional students were present in two organizations Adult Students on Campus and the Adult Student Scholarship Fund. I found immediate peer connections including veterans, and guard and reserve members, and had many service/learning opportunities including fund raising, service to the community, and more. I also lived for four semesters in the Adult Student/Graduate Student dorm, Buchanan Hall a very important component of my education because I had same-age peers, military veteran peers, and many of the same-age peers were graduate students. The world beyond a bachelor’s degree was opened up to me (and I went on to complete a law degree at the University of Iowa).

Along the way I moved away from interest in pursuing a technical degree to interest in society thanks to faculty in political science, economics, and public policy. I discovered those classes through my peers and discussion with them about their coursework while we were in the Adult Students Lounge at the Memorial Union, a physical space that was important to having a critical mass of peers. I also became involved in student governance in the residence hall because my veteran peers had already begun leadership positions there. I did the same in cross-campus student governance in the Government of the Student Body as a non-traditional student senator. And I served on the board of the Adult Students on Campus organization so I could give back to the organization that supported me. Each of these experiences reinforced for me that veterans were ideally suited to engage in college education, in every facet from class work, to residence life, to student government. And that our differences strengthened the academic and social environment.

I write this because I think there are several components that may contribute to academic success for veterans, and to address concerns I have heard from veterans returning to the classroom. For veterans, first, there are peers on campuses, and peer support can come in many settings seek it out, and then give back. Second, veteran students are different than non-veteran students embrace the differences and contribute to the diversity of the academic environment. Third, veteran students are pursuing similar goals as non-veterans perhaps a different path at the beginning converging in the classroom. For higher education, creating opportunities for peer groups to form is an important support, requiring physical space, opportunities for engagement, and a critical mass of students. Creating communities that include all age ranges, veteran and non-veteran students, and at all levels of education in many disciplines may permit cross-fertilization of ideas and supports. Creating service-learning opportunities targeted to veterans and non-traditional students may allow engagement that gives meaning beyond education alone. Integrating veteran students into student governance, residence life, campus activities, and other student organizations increases a sense of belonging, of engagement, and of purpose. It allows veterans to share their strengths and to learn from their peers. And ultimately this may improve college education, student success, and community engagement.

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