I came to Northeastern University College of Professional Studies for my bachelor’s in Leadership after having served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2004, including two Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments to Egypt and Quatar. Based on my experience and my work with veterans, students and educators, I can attest that veterans positively impact the classroom.
I’ve found that veterans approach their studies with remarkable focus. It’s not that other students don’t possess the same focus or drive, but you will find the majority of veterans step into the classroom knowing exactly why they are going back to school; they are motivated to get it done, and willing to bring others with them as they go. I think the more students you have like that in the classroom, the more productive that learning experience is going to be for everyone.
Here are the top four ways I’ve seen – and experienced – that veterans impact the higher education classroom:
The number one impact veterans have on the classroom is respect for the instructor and a productive learning environment. Veteran students are typically older than their classmates, whether it’s a couple of years or a couple of decades. I’ve noticed that younger students are used to being connected all the time. They have their laptops open and cell phones out and you can see they are not all engaged in the learning environment. With veterans role-modeling what it’s like to be a respectful student, it can impact the level of respect in the classroom.
2. Intercultural Experience
As with other groups and communities, the military has its own history and culture. Whether consciously or not, regardless of who they are or where they come from, students carry their background with them. Exposure to military culture brings another perspective to the classroom. Military culture emphasizes a community built on teamwork while carrying your own weight and becoming self-sufficient, adapting to change and overcoming obstacles. No two veterans are going to be exactly the same, but we share a common thread through our basic training and the rigorous and challenging initiation process.
3. Geopolitical Experience
A vast majority of post 9/11-era veterans have deployed, meaning we’ve been sent abroad in support of our nation’s global objectives. That means we bring international experience that another student may not. It can be incredibly enriching for students to learn about a culture separate from their own, either in the larger classroom, or on-on-one.
On a single deployment, a servicemember may interact with individuals from many different countries, people who speak any number of different languages or practicing a variety of religions. You can learn many interesting things from a veteran who’s willing to share his or her experiences abroad.
Another major impact veterans have in the classroom is their first-hand experience with geopolitics and current affairs. When you’re debating what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, it’s possible veterans were there, on the ground or in surrounding countries supporting operations, learning the language, learning the differences between sects or tribes and getting a basic understanding of the politics and culture of the area.
We started a program at Northeastern where veterans volunteer to come into classrooms to talk about their experiences. Even though it can be challenging for veterans to hear other students sharing knowledge they haven’t seen firsthand, once veterans open up about their experiences, it can be highly beneficial to the entire classroom.
Group work is becoming increasingly prevalent in higher education – I did a lot myself. With any group, you have a group of people who are doing their fair share, but someone needs to lead. And leading doesn’t mean taking charge and telling everyone what to do, but providing a sense of focus and task-orientation. Veterans and service members are used to either being that leader, or recognizing opportunities where someone needs to take the reins and guide the group. Experience plays a significant role here – it’s one thing to read about leadership styles in a book, and another to have concrete examples of effective and less-than-effective leaders you served under in the military.
Overall, veterans bring a defined sense of purpose to the classroom. They likely sacrified years of their lives to have the opportunity to earn a degree. Veterans don’t question why they are there, and they like to surround themselves with others who feel the same way. The more students you have like that in the classroom, the more productive that learning experience is going to be.