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Veterans Studies: Expanding Notions of “Vet Friendly” to Include the Curriculum

By Penny Coleman

In March of 2014, Travis L. Martin published a thoughtful and provocative article through Military Experience and the Arts, titled “Veterans Studies as an Academic Discipline,” in which he called out academia for its failure to offer programs that “(introduce) non-veterans to military service, (allow) veterans to contextualize their experience, and bring both groups together in scholarly analysis of those issues relevant to veterans of different generations.”

Martin is absolutely correct. Programs dedicated to veterans’ studies currently exist in only three universities: Eastern Kentucky UniversityUniversity of Missouri St. Louis, and ours at SUNY / Empire State College. ,

Despite the eagerness of colleges and universities to accept the tuition and other benefits that student veterans bring to their campuses, and even despite the well-intentioned efforts of many schools to provide those students with supportive “veteran friendly” environments, veterans remain marginalized in the curriculum. As Martin so aptly points out, university catalogues include an emerging focus on populations that have been traditionally underrepresented, but veterans are not among them.

The Veterans Studies program that Martin championed at Eastern Kentucky University was, in 2012, the first of its kind in the nation at the undergraduate level– and it remains so. That same year, SUNY/Empire State College launched an Advanced Certificate in Veterans Services— also a first, but at the graduate level. It, too, remains unique. Though our program design and demographic audiences are different, our priorities reflect similar intentions.

Both programs recognize that veterans’ issues are national issues and so emphasize the importance of engaging both military and civilian students, and both have chosen an educational approach that privileges strong theoretical and conceptual content. The ESC certificate, offered entirely online, consists of four 15-week, 3-credit graduate courses, (Credits earned are directly transferable to several of our other graduate programs.) We packed into those courses what we believe our students most need to serve and advocate effectively in the veteran space.

As much as they need to know about current and available policies and benefits, students also need to understand that those policies and benefits are an expression of human politics, arrived at over centuries of debate, adjustment and change.

When existing policies and benefits are inadequate to the needs of those they are supposed to support, we encourage students to recognize the importance of community, to practice building bridges to local organizations that will support their future efforts.

When those policies and benefits have outlived their usefulness, students need to believe in their ability to research competently, think through complex issues, write professionally, argue with clarity, and know that they have at their disposal a toolbox full of strategies to advocate for change.

We encourage students to recognize that “military culture” is convenient, if often misleading, shorthand. Any individual service member will experience that culture uniquely (depending on a whole slew of variables, including service branch, rank, era of service, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference). True cultural competence reflects a deep understanding of how different we all are–and how different our life experiences have been.

Those training to serve the veteran community must be aware that mental illness and invisible injuries are stigmatized, not only in military culture, but in the civilian culture that surrounds it as well. A provider’s good will alone often isn’t enough. Without considered perspectives, examined beliefs, and cultivated sensitivities, s/he may actually do more harm than good.

In other words, students need education at least as much as they need training. The ESC Certificate program includes opportunities for students to practice identifying problems and solutions that go beyond simple application of policies and benefits.

As a graduate program, our students tend to be professionals with some previous experience in the field, and though the majority are veterans, we also enroll a lot of active duty military and their family members, social workers and counselors, VA employees (or aspirants), college and university educational service officers, public and private veteran service officers and case managers, state and county veteran service officers, and advocates of all stripes. They share their military and professional experiences, argue ethics and justice, research current initiatives and practice writing policy briefs and testimony for lawmakers. In the process, they get to know each other, learn to listen and speak across differences, and form networks that extend beyond the university.

EKU’s residential program has all the advantages of brick and mortar classrooms: face-to-face learning, campus support, extracurricular socializing and opportunities for local student initiatives. Those programs should be everywhere, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. However, for those students whose busy schedules are harder to accommodate, an online program provides flexibility, both in time and location, as well as the diversity of a national student body.

Our program is also unique in that it focuses, not on military issues in general, but entirely on veterans, the strengths they have acquired through their military service, the illnesses and injuries they carry home, the reentry challenges that they and their families face, and the systems of support available to help them succeed. In other words, it is about healing, both the soldiers and the system.

Finally, both programs hope to inspire other institutions to include Veterans Studies in their offerings, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. Our differences, then, as well as our similarities, offer choices for others to consider. We’re all in this together.


Penny port copyPenny Coleman is the coordinator of the Advanced Certificate Veterans Services at SUNY/Empire State College.  She is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home and the author of Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War  (Beacon Press, 2006).

Her articles and congressional testimonies can be found on her website.  She can be reached at Penny.Coleman@esc.edu.