Challenges Of Going From War Zone To The Classroom

Hundreds of thousands of service members are transitioning from bases to college campuses. As Americans get ready for Veterans Day, host Michel Martin discusses the challenges veterans face, and the programs that help them succeed. She talks with Meg Mitcham, a veteran and the head of veterans programs for the American Council on Education.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, for Native American Heritage Month, we've talked a lot about the presidential campaign and national politics. Now, we want to talk about some of the issues tribal leaders are facing. We'll have that conversation a little later in the program.

But, first, we want to look ahead to Veterans' Day this weekend. That's a time we honor all the sacrifices service men and women make to secure the nation's freedom.

Today, we want to talk about an effort to help those veterans improve their own futures through education. According to the Center for American Progress, more than 400,000 veterans were enrolled in higher education during the 2012 spring semester. Now, some colleges and universities are offering veterans-only classes that take into account the unique needs of returning warriors.

Joining us to talk more about those - Meg Mitcham. She is the director of veterans' programs for the American Council on Education. She's also a veteran. She served as a medic in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and she's with us now.

Welcome. And can I start by saying thank you for your service?

MEG MITCHAM: Oh, my pleasure. I enjoyed almost every minute of it.

MARTIN: Well, we'll talk about that for a minute. I mean, since you had this experience yourself, describe what some of the experiences would be or might be of someone coming back and then returning an educational environment that people who haven't been through it might not think about.

MITCHAM: Most of them seem funny now, looking back on them, but I very specifically remember walking onto campus my first day of classes and looking around and realizing that I was at least five years older than the majority of the students walking campus. I liked to wear pants and a nice shirt to class and some of them showed up in pajamas and boots, and that was a little odd to me, admittedly.

And there were things that would happen from a veteran's perspective, from a service member's perspective. It's just a cultural difference. Students sitting in the back of the classroom, talking through lectures, texting on their cell phones through lectures, and you just can't do that. You know, these are things - I remember going to my guidance counselor at one point and saying, these things would never happen in the army and he just sort of looked at me and said, well, you're not in the army anymore.

And I think the transition for service members is largely about understanding that and being able to interact in that culture.

MARTIN: Was it so distracting that you found it really detracted from your academic experience?

MITCHAM: The social environment, less so. There were specific things. You know, I hit campus maybe five weeks after coming home from a combat deployment and so some of the other things were distracting. If people would show up to class late and the door would open behind me, that was hugely distracting for me at a time where I was still coming down from a sense of being highly aware of everything that was going around me and being able to focus and pay attention through some of those things was difficult.

MARTIN: In honor of Veterans' Day, we're talking about veterans' college programs or programs designed to make the campus environment more welcoming, more receptive to veterans. Our guest is Meg Mitcham. She is the director of veterans' programs for the American Council on Education.

Talk about some of the things that colleges and universities are doing to try to make the campus environment more welcoming to returning veterans.

MITCHAM: Yeah. Many colleges and universities are creating a diverse set of programs to support their veteran and service member, and even the families of veterans and service member population on their campuses these days. A lot of those programs come in the form of veteran-specific courses.

MARTIN: Can you give an example?

MITCHAM: Sure. So let's talk about English 101, for example. When you're in your, you know, first college level English course, oftentimes, you write about experiences that you're familiar with or that you understand or that you know. Service members, in some cases, may be reluctant to write about their most recent experiences in an English 101 course, where they may have to share their work with peers who might not understand their background. So there are some courses out there that are creating the option for veterans to take an English 101 course, same curriculum, same material, but largely with all veterans and, in some cases, even a veteran instructor.

MARTIN: That makes perfect sense to me. What are some - no, I mean, particularly when you put it in the framework of people whose operations may have involved - sure.

MITCHAM: Or even talking about the day we hit an IED and how I reacted to that and that's something that now is very easy for me talk to with you, but five weeks out of being there might have been more difficult for me to share with a class of 18-year-old students who had not had those kinds of experiences.

MARTIN: Well, you can certainly understand that. What are some of the other things that people are doing?

MITCHAM: So, in other cases, I'm sure you're familiar with first year seminars. Again, I signed up for a freshman orientation seminar and I think the first day of class involved a scavenger hunt through the library. You're rolling your eyes. Believe me, so did I, and you know, again, I went up to my guidance counselor and I said, you've got to be kidding me. Just tell me how to use the library and I will use the library and, you know...

MARTIN: What did they say?

MITCHAM: Again...

MARTIN: What did the - did he or she...

MITCHAM: He laughed.

MARTIN: ...understand it?

MITCHAM: Absolutely understood it, waived the requirement for me, said yes. I think you probably understand how to use some of the skills that you learned in the military to find your way through campus, so I think we can make this happen.

Other institutions are choosing to create veteran-specific courses, highlight for them community and campus resources that are available to them as service members and veterans, also be an overview for how to use your veteran's educational benefits. In addition, provide that orientation to the academic environment, but in a way that notes, accepts and recognizes that veterans are transitioning from a different place than an 18-year-old traditional student is.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though. You know, when he left office, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked about what he said was the growing gap between people with military experience and people without, a growing kind of military-civilian divide. What would you say to people that that's - you know, in part, college campuses are about people learning from each others' different experiences and that, if veterans are walled off, the civilian population is not getting the benefit of what they know and they're not really getting the experience of transitioning back that they really need. What would you say to that?

MITCHAM: Well, please keep in mind that this is one course in a veteran's entire academic career, so this is an opportunity for them to, early on in their academic career, have that safe space and develop that peer support network which we know all students need. And it's also the opportunity for the college and university to demonstrate to the veterans - we do support you and they're - you do fit in here and we want you to use your experience.

And so what I was able to do after I had those moments with my peers and became more comfortable being a veteran on campus, I did start using my experiences in non-veteran-specific courses.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot about the peer-to-peer relationships. Do you feel that there is training that perhaps faculty and staff might need?

MITCHAM: Absolutely. Faculty and staff are looking to have a more broad understanding of military culture as a whole and the deployment experience, so a lot of staff and faculty training will essentially be military culture 101. At the same time, we hosted a veterans' success jam a few years ago where we were able to talk with faculty and administrators and heard from them that they were concerned that there were veterans that were in their course who perhaps had an undiagnosed invisible injury and they said to us, these veterans are stellar students, but at the end of the day, they're struggling in my course because they're not completing the tests.

So a lot of the staff and faculty training also incorporates how to refer veterans to resources, what resources are available, both on campus and within the community, so if a veteran finds a mentor in a particular instructor, that instructor knows where to send that veteran to when that veteran comes and says, hey, I could use some help. Do you have any ideas for me?

MARTIN: Why would a person be having trouble completing tests and how would that be related to his or her service?

MITCHAM: Well, in...

MARTIN: Would it be perhaps an undiagnosed brain injury?

MITCHAM: An undiagnosed traumatic brain injury. Mild traumatic brain injury is often - often manifests in the sense of lack of concentration or problems focusing. You know, when I came home, I didn't know that I'd bumped my head one too many times and needed some additional time to take a test, so there are a lot of ways that staff and faculty are the first points of contact for veterans to get them accessing those resources and that's where that type of training for the staff and faculty can be quite helpful.

MARTIN: I want to thank you again for your service and for what you did then and what you're doing now. What's the one thing that made the biggest difference to you when you came back?

MITCHAM: My guidance counselor was a mentor, a strong supporter. He clearly understood it already, in spite of not having any background, and the fact that I knew I could go to him and say, hey, I don't get it. Help me. And he would help me. Or I could come and laugh with him over a silly situation that had happened because I misstepped because I was prior military and I, you know, went into Staff Sergeant Meg mode, they liked to call it. He was so understanding and so supportive and really bent over backwards to ensure I succeeded.

MARTIN: Well, let's thank him, too.

MITCHAM: Jamie Perry(ph).

MARTIN: All right. Meg Mitcham served 10 years as a medic in the U.S. Army, including two overseas tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She's now the director of veterans' programs for the American Council on Education. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Happy Veterans' Day to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MITCHAM: Thanks for having me, Michel.

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