Cura Personalis and Student Veterans at JCU
Eric Patterson, Director of Veterans Affairs and International Services, Enrollment Division, John Carroll University

St. Ignatius’ personal path of transformation from soldier to cleric, educator, and, eventually saint, can offer many examples and guideposts to many different types of people. Perhaps no better life story can be found to serve as a model for one group in particular, that of student veterans on Jesuit campuses.

John Carroll University (JCU) formally established a dedicated student veterans program, known as Celebration of Service, early in 2011. Like many Jesuit colleges and universities, John Carroll is a VA Yellow Ribbon partner. Also, not atypically, we have a generous policy to award ACE-recommended undergraduate credits for military training and experience, and we provide close guidance and attention throughout the application process. And, still like so many of our fellow Jesuit campuses, we have an active student veterans club, which has its own campus lounge, and whose members seek to share their experiences and to make an impact amongst their fellow students and in the surrounding community.

Over the past year in particular, though, the John Carroll Celebration of Service student veteran program has identified some persistent issues and has devised and implemented some unique organizational responses.

The first of these innovations occurred in response to a series of counseling sessions, over time, with student veterans who were considering changing their major, most usually based upon changing life and career goals. Always a difficult decision with many factors to consider, student veterans also have to consider that there is a limit, usually 36 months, to the amount of schooling that will be covered by GI Bill benefits. Thus, we recognized that the traditional career counseling offered to students, which often isn’t utilized by students until later in their college career, was of critical importance to new student veterans. Exposing student veterans to expert knowledge about careers paths and realities, and their recognition that certain, and sometimes unexpected, majors could be an ideal fit for a desired career, was a logical first step in ensuring student retention and degree completion before the expenditure of all of their GI Bill benefits.

Thus, very much in alignment with the principle of cura personalis, the JCU student veteran office added an assistant director with a degree in clinical counseling and with experience working in a campus career center. Having this person in place to guide new student veterans through ‘transition counseling’ is valuable, and also gives John Carroll the opportunity to identify, early on, those student veterans who may need other types of internal or external counseling support as they take off the uniform and begin to re-acclimate not just to civilian society, but to the unique learning environment of a Jesuit campus.

The next natural step in this progression of thinking about the student veteran transition process was the initial curriculum requirements and offerings. Simply put, the question that was asked by faculty leadership was, “How can we re-imagine academic coursework, content, and teaching styles to assist veterans with not only the transition back to society, but in particular to a Jesuit campus?” The response by the John Carroll faculty was both imaginative and amazing.

As part of the fall 2013 semester, John Carroll will launch a pilot program of four courses which are roughly categorized as ‘veteran friendly.’ Unlike some other approaches that seem to pre-suppose that veteran-friendly courses are, of necessity, remedial in nature, the John Carroll veteran-friendly courses assume that an admitted student veteran is just as talented as any other student, but that what they would particularly benefit from is teaching and thinking that will help them to properly contextualize their military and combat experience. Thus, for example, we are offering a philosophy course which begins by looking at Stoic philosophy, but then lingers on Plato’s Republic as he considers the question, “Why is a military needed, and what should be the carefully honed nature of these warriors?”

Recognition that this question was important to the Greeks will help current veterans understand that while their particular military experience may be unique, the issues at play are as old as civilization. Another example is a political science course on the topic of strategy, security, and conflict, and which will be open only to honors students and student veterans. In this model, one group can be exposed to some of the reality of the lived experience in the wider world, and the other group to some of the best approaches to thinking and learning within the student body.

Finally, after two full academic years of actively recruiting, enrolling, and supporting student veterans, we have come to realize that the overwhelming majority of this group is originally from Cleveland or northeast Ohio, and that they have returned to this area following their military service. Thus, in partnership with US Army Recruiting Command and other military-friendly campuses in the area, we have routinely brought groups of “Future Soldiers,” being those who have enlisted but have not yet shipped out to basic training, along with their families, to our campuses to educate them about the important realities of the GI Bill and the educational opportunities and support systems that are awaiting them upon their return. This program, strategic in nature given that these young enlistees will be gone for at least several years before beginning to return to Cleveland, has already begun to bear fruit by way of inquiries, Concurrent Applications (the US Army ConApp program), and enrollments by reservists who return to the area immediately following their initial entry training.

We hope, that by sharing some of these innovations, we can inspire other Jesuit institutions of higher learning to remain on the cutting edge of best practices in support of attracting, retaining, and graduating student veterans. The personal story of Ignatius, who was not only a soldier but also a wounded warrior, before his life was transformed, should call all of us to keep in mind the potential contained within each of the student veterans on our campuses.

Photo of Eric Patterson courtesy of John Carroll University.

Connections provides readers with news and information about the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Each month, Connections covers a topic affecting Jesuit higher education, along with news from AJCU, including federal relations and AJCU conferences.