New class at MU helps veterans transition to classroom

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 | 11:22 a.m. CDT; updated 11:08 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Keith Widaman goes over notes during his Developmental Psychology class. Widaman had been hunting all morning and was still in camouflage for his 9 a.m. class.

COLUMBIA — As a Marine, Keith Widaman worked on convoy security and weapons repair in Kuwait, helped with humanitarian work in Haiti and disaster relief in Bangladesh, was part of a counter-piracy effort off the Somali coast and trained police in Iraq.

Even with eight years of military experience, Widaman, 25, admits he sometimes feels like he's catching up with his peers.

About the MU Veterans Center

The MU Veterans Center:

  • is located at W1018 Lafferre Hall, on Sixth Street between Elm Street and Conley Avenue. Phone: 884-4388.
  • was established in December 2008 and was one of the first four set up on college campuses in the nation.
  • serves about 260 student veterans and 800 employee veterans at MU, as well as any veteran who comes through the door.
  • serves as a resource and "one-stop" shop for academic, emotional, medical and financial issues, among others.
  • assists veterans at all four campuses in the University of Missouri System.
  • has student veterans in all five branches of the military. The Army has the most veterans at MU, followed closely by Marines, then Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard.

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"I have a friend in law school in California, same age," he said. "A year from now, he is going to be knocking down 150k a year; I’m going to be a junior.”

This semester, Widaman is enrolled in a learning and strategies" course meant to help him in his academic career. For the first time since the 1940s, MU is offering the course for military veterans. The idea for the class began when Daniel Sewell, president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association, recognized a need for veterans making the transition back to the classroom.

When he returned to school after five years in the Air Force, he felt lost and lacked critical skills such as note-taking, test-taking and time management, Sewell said.

"I kind of learned on the go," he said.

Sewell took his idea for the class to Carol Fleisher, interim director of the MU Veterans Center, who paired him with Anne Case-Halferty. Case-Halferty, a graduate assistant in the Office of Service Learning, had a similar idea after her deployed husband expressed anxiety about returning to the classroom.

“Many of these students have more anxiety about succeeding in college than they ever had while in the military, or even during their deployments,” she said. 

Case-Halferty and Sewell collaborated to develop a class that would meet the needs of returning veterans to the classroom. In addition to needing certain classroom and study skills, veterans also tend to be older and struggle to find a social network in which they feel comfortable.

“Under the new GI Bill, retention rates for returning veterans is about 60 percent, and that isn’t good,” Sewell said. The Post-9/11 GI Bill gives veterans who have served on active duty since the 9/11 terrorist attacks financial assistance for higher education.

Fleisher said there has been an influx of veterans returning to school under the bill. This is one reason why student veteran centers have popped up on campuses nationwide. MU has 260 student veterans.

Columbia College has nearly 100 veterans at its Columbia campus this semester, said Joanne Tedesco, senior director of public relations. In early summer, the college, which caters to veterans and other adult learners and has 18 locations on military bases, opened the Veterans Service Center in Missouri Hall with the goal of helping veterans navigate academia.

Making the transition

When a soldier decides to leave the military, the process is not easy. “With two wars going on, the truth of the matter is the military still needs people in," Sewell said. "There is a lot of pressure on the military to keep people in, and that does not bode well for those looking to get out and pursue something else.”

Even reaching the decision isn't easy, he said. People serving in the military have a routine-oriented life in which housing, food and health care are typically provided. And the culture has a kind of overarching purpose.

"The Marine Corps is very tight, a very close-knit community," Widaman said. "The gravity of what happened with Sept. 11 — people felt that. That was a brotherhood that was like no other." He enlisted at age 17 as a way to support himself after dropping out of high school, and the attacks occurred a month after his boot camp ended.

Sewell said veterans who feel unprepared in the classroom and perform poorly can suffer from self-doubt and question their decision to leave the military, which up until they left had been their career.

“Hopefully, what’s been established here on campus will make that transition as easy as possible,” Sewell said.

The class is not required but is strongly suggested. Twenty-five veterans are enrolled in the class, and Sewell hopes the number will continue to grow when the class is offered in future semesters.

The syllabus states the class will address topics such as approaches to choosing a major, formal essay writing strategies, career exploration and resume-writing assistance, time management and priority setting, personal development, integrating military skills and experience, and information about veteran resources on campus.

“Our goal is to welcome a fine bunch of MU students and help them be as successful as they possibly can be at MU,” said Anne-Marie Foley, director of the university's Office of Service-Learning and one of the course's teachers.

'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'

Widaman began at MU in June, a month after leaving the military.

"What really drove me out was that if I stayed in, I would not be able to finish my degree, and I'd be deployed again and again and again," he said. “I’ve done my time, dedicated a lot of time, and now I have to look out for me.”

His process of leaving the military began in June 2008, and he began thinking of where to go to school. “I could go to a smaller college and get an education, and it would be nice," he said. "But if I wanted to be competitive on a larger scale, I needed a degree from a well-known, larger university.”

He looked at programs at Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University, but after discovering the veterans center at MU, he was sold.  “There was a group of people just like me, and it was also financially attainable," Widaman said. "It was a very strategic move on my end.”

After completing some courses over the summer semester, Widaman joined the veterans course because he realized it would help educate him on what he called the "policies of this institution." His thinking was that just as the military is an institution with its own rules, so is the university. "It's a whole new institution you have to learn," he said.

“The class has a lot of camaraderie because everyone has been in the military,” Widaman said. "It's a support group in a sense. We communicate problems students have in transition."

While in the military, Widaman served as a color guard sergeant and platoon sergeant while taking classes to learn Arabic. “I was doing everything I could to be the best Marine I could," he said. "I was going above and beyond.”

Widaman hopes to do the same thing as a college student. He is a member of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association and the Skeet Shooting Club and is a pledge for the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

“I’ve got to accept where I am and say, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.'"

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