Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class was the title on a book spine I just noticed on my wife’s bookshelf. We have a lot of bookshelves, and a lot of books we both brought into our home when we married, and our book collections are pretty eclectic, so I haven’t really seen all of her books yet. But this one resonated a little with me. (OK, some will contend I’m not an academic. Frankly that’s probably part of what the book gets at, as well as the fact that I’ve always been an academic researcher and academic administrator, and an adjunct in a couple of places, but never a regular faculty member.) Anyway, when I did the quick search on the book before deciding whether to read it or not, I came across an article by Howard Waitzkin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He focused on his feeling of alienation from colleges he attended and worked in, and how that book influenced him to work with students who were from similar, poor, rural backgrounds. His article, and its six points resonated with me as I thought about how I’ve worked with students and particularly, recently, with veteran students who may not quite feel like they fit in. His six points, paraphrased:
- Offer safety
- Connect students with their passions
- Foster student voices and visions
- Push expectation boundaries
- Facilitate community experiences
- Learn from the students
I understood his feelings of “alienation” from the universities where he studied and worked – I felt a bit apart from mine as well. I grew up technically poor (I didn’t know that at the time, really, I just knew we weren’t well-to-do). Unlike him, I did go into the military – not drafted into Vietnam as were his peers, but into an all-volunteer force. I went willingly, and desperately. Desperate to leave Iowa. The small, rural town that was the largest and most self-important for a 100 miles in any direction. I went to see the world, and to experience life, get an education, and find what was next.
For me, what was next after service was college. Back in Iowa, at a public university, Iowa State. Mostly because I wanted to go to law school at the University of Iowa and everyone had told me not to go to the same school for an undergraduate degree and law degree. But, I didn’t feel very connected to the regular student body. (I wrote about that at Importance of Peers to Veteran Student Success.) Similarly, in law school I sought out peers who were veterans and non-traditional students. Particularly those from similar backgrounds. I was fortunate that the Iowa College of Law had a small section program that included people from all walks of life and made friends with people outside of my comfort zone as well. Several of my peers were veterans or active military members. Some went back into service and are still serving now, 15 years later, or just recently retired.
All that said, I was grateful for these opportunities for education, to grow, and to connect to others. When I went to work for the Iowa College of Law, when I had the opportunity to be an adjunct there and in the rehabilitation counseling program, I took those experiences, and, like Waitzkin, adapted my approach to students. I’ve kept that adapted approach all along. What primarily was important to me was to communicate that they, like me, belonged, but perhaps didn’t fit. Belonging and fit are too often confused. Fit goes with experience and familiarity. Belonging goes with ability to benefit from, and to provide value to, an institution of higher education, earning it through willingness to take that benefit, and to do something with it, whether for the individuals own benefit or the benefit of the university or society as a whole. Too often veterans don’t feel like they fit with their traditional student peers. But fit is the wrong measure. Belonging is the right measure. Ability to use education to the fullest extent, to apply it. Interestingly both the comments in his article and Amazon’s recommendation engine both recommended Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams as a resource related to the same issues.
Hopefully more and more of the veteran students I work with will join academia, or aspired to move from their “camouflage collar” jobs to white collar careers including in academia. I know quite a few veterans who are faculty members, administrators, and staff. Most of us don’t and haven’t connected to veteran students regularly. But if we did, if we applied those six principles, and made sure veteran students knew who we are and that we’re available for them, we’d do better as a community, and as a society. As a leader at Student Veterans of America, this is an area I will focus on for our student veteran members and chapters, as well as the universities they attend. We’re good enough (or better than good enough) to be faculty members, to pursue academic research, to be administrators, and staff members, and we have an obligation to serve our veterans when we are in higher education.
An earlier version of this was originally published at http://www.jamesschmeling.com/strangers-in-paradise-veterans-in-higher-education/.