Cougar Veterans, Washington State University.On WSU’s Pullman campus, two English department faculty members, who happen to be veterans themselves, are building awareness and understanding of a unique student population through their Student Veterans Awareness.

“Veterans, military members, and their families are a vital and vibrant part of the WSU Cougar community,” said Mike Edwards, an assistant professor of English. “We want these students to know that they are welcome here and that their service and life experiences are valued.”

Edwards, a US Army veteran and previous instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point, has been teaching the Student Veterans Awareness training for fellow English 101 faculty members every year since 2013. Elijah Coleman, another English faculty member who is a Marine veteran, co-leads the training.

Mike Edwards

A distinctive student population that brings a unique set of experiences and abilities to the classroom, veterans make up an important portion of WSU’s student population, with 3.1% of students either previously or currently serving in the military, according to fall 2020 student data.

“The idea is to cast as wide a net as possible in creating awareness of student veterans. Virtually everyone takes English 101 when they first start college, so we know there will be a significant population of student veterans in those courses,” said Edwards. “New instructors also start with English 101, so we want to start them out early with an understanding of this unique student community.”

The veterans awareness training is part of an ongoing, year-long, professional development series required for faculty members teaching English 101 courses and is designed to inform instructors on how to recognize veteran students in their classrooms and how to better understand various cultural attributes that can distinguish those in the military and veteran community.

“Many faculty members don’t have any experience working with veterans, and it’s our goal to introduce them to recognize these students and understand the military experiences they’ve had,” said Edwards.

According to Coleman, one prominent topic of discussion during the course is the positive impact those who have military experience can have on the classroom.

Elijah Coleman

“Student veterans and their families bring a wealth of experience and perspective to our classrooms. Learning about student veterans and their families helps instructors learn how to better tap the drive and energy and commitment that they bring from service,” said Coleman. “For example, veterans are problem solvers by training and necessity. Learning how to revise assignments to provide more clarity in instructions enables a student veteran to channel their critical thinking and problem-solving experience.”

“Many have also travelled the world and interacted with people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds,” said Edwards, who was deployed to Afghanistan while teaching at West Point. “Those experiences give them very valuable and interesting perspectives to engage with during class discussions.”

The course also explores the unique challenges and special needs experienced by veterans and how to promote better inclusive practices to make the classroom a welcoming space for all students.

“We want faculty members to be able to spot a student in crisis, so they can intervene and get them help if they need it,” said Edwards. “More broadly speaking, we want faculty members to understand some of the challenges that veterans can face, including PTSD, access to health care, and other important issues.”

Both Edwards and Coleman say they have seen a positive impact come from the training, reflected in feedback from fellow faculty members.

“The most immediate impact we’ve seen has been greater understanding of and respect for veterans and their families, not just in awareness of the challenges and issues they face, but also in awareness of the incredible skills and experiences they bring to their communities and their workplaces,” said Coleman. “After the sessions we’ve hosted, I’ve heard feedback that our work has led many instructors to revise and clarify assignments and goals in ways that helped all students, especially students from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Edwards and Coleman are currently working with WSU Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI) and Student Affairs to bring their Veteran’s Awareness Training to a wider audience across the WSU system.

“We would like to spread the word to more faculty members in all WSU academic departments, potentially in a virtual environment available to all,” said Edwards. “We feel that this is important training to help our great Cougar faculty members be the best instructors they can be, while letting every student know that they are welcome and valued at WSU.”

By Jeff Willadsen, Academic Outreach & Innovation, for WSU Insider