THE BLOG
10/25/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Why Professors Love Veterans

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Reams have been written about the advantages to veterans of continuing their educations. The Department of Labor reports that unemployment for college-educated veterans is about half that of those with only a high school degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests a much greater disparity, showing unemployment at about 30 percent for veterans under 24, those who are too young to have served and also completed four years of college. Certainly, there can be no doubt that it behooves veterans to return to school. But what do the schools stand to gain from veterans? According to the professors who have taught them, quite a bit.

Veterans bring a wealth of experience in leadership, administration, and diplomacy to the classroom. Because they have actually experienced the realities of war, operated in foreign environments, and negotiated with -- and often befriended -- people of other cultures, student veterans take classroom discussion from the theoretical to the real. According to Georgetown Professor Nancy Sherman, who teaches courses on the philosophy and moral psychology of war, "Having veterans in class has been critical for understanding issues of just war on the ground, the difficulties of incurring and avoiding collateral killings, and the moral and psychological aftermath of war." Sherman sometimes brings senior level officers, military spouses, and other insiders into the classroom to share their first-hand experience with her students.

Professor Scott Fleming, who teaches in the Graduate Public Policy Institute at Georgetown, often has veterans in his course on Lobbying and Government Relations. He notes that veterans are exceptionally motivated and bring a diversity of perspectives to the classroom. For example, when the class develops team lobbying strategy proposals, "veterans have chosen topics, such as changes in the Post 9-11 G.I. Bill, which might not have been selected by non-veteran students."

While courses in public policy and the ethics of war seem tailor-made for veteran participation, professors in other fields have also found the input of veterans to be invaluable. Professor Melissa Baralt, of Florida International University, says that because of their exposure to foreign languages, veterans excel in her linguistics courses. "Veterans have experience with the strategies required to use a foreign language in communicative contexts," says Baralt. "They are good at analyzing language (sounds, morphemes, syntactic structures, etc.). I am always ecstatic to have a veteran in class share his or her experience with learning and using Arabic or Farsi." She adds that veterans tend to have excellent communication skills and are able to enlighten other students about the practical application of the course material.

Business professors are exceptionally enthusiastic about veterans because of their leadership and management experience. Professor Hal Hershfield, of the Stern School of Business at New York University, comments, "When teaching MBAs about negotiation, the theories that I discuss are always dissected in more interesting ways when students apply lessons they've learned from their previous jobs. But vets bring a new and refreshing perspective to the table: their 'real world' experiences weren't at the boardroom, but instead, out in the field, often dealing with diverse cultures and individuals who didn't necessarily have a friendly attitude toward them." As a result, veterans bring new insights that enrich and enliven classes for everyone.

Even in a course as seemingly divorced from military concerns as my own on the 17th-century novel Don Quixote, veterans can make an important contribution. Every semester I invite a veteran to class when we discuss Don Quixote's famous discourse on arms and letters (Chapters 37 and 38), which asks whether it is nobler to serve the republic through warfare or the liberal professions. Although my students understand the concept of "letters," they usually have no idea what the practice of arms involves. While Don Quixote comes down solidly on the side of the warrior, our speakers usually explore the interdependence of both disciplines, often provoking animated classroom discussions.

Transitioning veterans I have met with often ask if their military experience is relevant to college. Some even tell me they are tempted to purge their years of service from their college applications. However, many colleges are so eager for student veterans that they have established outreach programs, sending representatives to junior colleges and military bases to encourage qualified applicants. Georgetown has recently initiated such a program and has made available a step-by-step guide for transitioning military. Organizations such as Student Veterans of America (SVA), Operation College Promise (OCP), the Tillman Foundation, Got Your Six, and the American Council on Education work with universities to disseminate information about veteran-friendly programs and funding sources.

Veterans are a significant resource for universities. They are accustomed to serve as soldiers, and they continue to serve as students. They not only animate the classroom, but often become student leaders, organizing campus activities and community service projects. No wonder so many professors welcome them enthusiastically.