November 19, 2020

Engaging the Larger Campus Community in Military-Connected Events on Campus


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Our university and college campuses are diverse communities that often have many informative and meaningful events taking place on campus (and now virtually). Engaging the larger campus community in these events is essential for our diverse communities to interact and learn from one another. In this month's Higher Ed Careers interview, in honor of November being National Veterans and Military Families Month, we focus on how to best engage the larger campus community in military-connected events.

Kelly Cherwin, Director of Editorial Strategy, HigherEdJobs: What are your best practices in developing, promoting, and executing military-connected events on campus? Can/should any of your best practices translate for other events on campus?

University of Arizona Staff: The first best practice is to listen to what your students are asking for. We always poll our military-connected students to find out what services/events they are most interested in. This is done through the use of student surveys, email lists, town halls, and direct feedback from our student leadership and employees. Another key practice is having student buy-in. One of our goals is to provide an avenue for our veterans to be able to continue their service to the community, thus creating a positive feedback loop of students helping students. Student buy-in can also help with recruitment or participation of events and you see this across campus with other events and groups. To that end, we engage with our ROTC program and have created mentoring programs where veterans can assist the next generation. Further, after listening to what our students want most from their college experience, we explore projects that are most relevant to the major. For example, a cohort of students majoring in social sciences and the humanities are engaged in a National Endowment for the Humanities grant entitled, "Thunder of War: Winds of Return" which focuses on literature, movies, poetry, and plays exploring the transition from military to civilian life. Students then will engage the larger community in dialogues surrounding WWI, Vietnam, and OEF/OIF. Additionally, we have a mentorship program specific to our Women Veterans pursuing STEM degrees. This is in partnership with Raytheon and connected to the Women in Science and Engineering program through the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Cherwin: What are some of the military-connected events that you are most of proud of on your campus?

University of Arizona Staff: Many of our projects were the work of our students wanting to make our community better for other students, and for those that follow. The projects we're proudest of usually fall under this category; Partnership with Southern Arizona Honor Flight, military-connected student career fairs, graduation/stole ceremonies, UA Veteran Alliance training for faculty/staff, and the creation and maintenance of our VETS Military-Connected Student Centers. Other programs we are proud of are our engagement with the healthcare colleges across our campus and the formation of the Veterans Health Sciences Club and our work with the School of Family and Human Development -- to assist future counselors in understanding the unique challenges of soldiers and their families. Involving not only our military-connected population, but also those who simply want to honor our veterans is important. For example, we have a chapter for the Veterans Heritage Project on campus. These are students who are interested in interviewing veterans and publishing their stories each year. The publication is contained in the Library of Congress and allows our veterans to tell their stories in their own words.

Cherwin: Are there any terms/phrases that you have found seem to engage the greater campus community in military-connected events more (or less) than others?

University of Arizona Staff: During our inception, we were mostly focused on developing programming for veterans, but as we grew, so did our understanding of the needs of military-connected students. We've found that developing language that is more inclusive of all military-connected students, not just veterans has allowed our centers and programming to engage with the greater campus community. Further, in an effort to describe our wide range of programming, we have adopted "Engage, Empower, Educate, & Employ" as a way to capture and think about all phases of our students' journey.

Cherwin: How do you define or determine successful engagement with the greater campus community? What is 'successful engagement' from your perspectives?

University of Arizona Staff: Our military-connected student population represents approximately 10 percent of the total population on campus. Our main priority is to focus on opportunities for our population, but we've found that the greater campus community is more than happy to engage with our students. In terms of engaging with faculty and staff, we've found that our UA Veteran Alliance training provides a learning opportunity on the military experience and issues that affect our military-connected students. We highlight the diversity and strengths our population brings to our classrooms and campus while exploring the many resources the University of Arizona makes available to both them and their families. Overall successful engagement is when the greater campus has developed a greater awareness and understanding of our military-connected student population and when our students have a greater awareness of the academic environment.

Cherwin: What are your biggest challenges in organizing military-connected events and how do you work to overcome these?

University of Arizona Staff: The biggest challenge in organizing military-connected events is participation. We try to have early student involvement in the planning, promoting, and execution of most events on campus. We recognize that our students often have commitments beyond the campus (family care, employment, etc.). So, we are constantly looking for event opportunities that serve the interests of all segments of our population.

Cherwin: What do you hope faculty and staff outside of the military-connected community on campus will do more of to support veterans and military-connected events on campus?

University of Arizona Staff: It mostly comes down to education on what the military-connected student experience can be like. It's about showing understanding and compassion, and working with students so they can have a successful transition into and out of higher education.

Cherwin: Military-connected students and student veterans are a diverse population with many different backgrounds and stories. What have you found is the best way(s) to connect military-connected individuals on campus beyond organized events?

University of Arizona Staff: We recognize each veteran is unique, does bring their own background, story, and perception on life, the military, and higher education with them to college. And we are here to cultivate that while guiding in the transition from service member, to student, to graduate, to being gainfully employed. Further, having a student center where students can interact and engage with each other has been a great benefit to our population. We are fortunate to have a space that accommodates social interaction, quiet study areas, and group study areas.

Cherwin: Please briefly explain your role on campus and what keeps you engaged in the work you do with your veteran population on campus?

Duan Copeland, Graduate Associate for Military and Veteran Engagement: Serving my fellow veterans.

Bruce Grissom, Director of Veterans Education and Transition Services: I oversee the day to day operations of the university VETS (Veterans Education and Transition Services) centers and ensure that programmatic operations in these areas are engaging students, promoting student success and wellbeing, and fostering activities that lead students towards earning their degrees.

Cody Nicholls, Assistant Dean of Students for Military & Veteran Engagement: It all comes back to serving our military and veteran connected student population.

Michael W. Marks, Ph.D., ABPP Professor of Practice in Psychology, Director Supportive Education for Returning Veterans: Their passion to be of service in any way possible.

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