I am proud to work at Pierce College, and even more proud of those students who make it through college with tremendous challenges and impediments in their path. We were told at the beginning of the year to watch out for the returning vets from Afghanistan–they were a group at considerable risk of dropping out. I listened to the warnings, but I didn’t think I would have any trouble; after all, I have developed some skill assisting and mentoring the student at risk.
I was not, however, successful this semester. A returning veteran took one of my classes this year. He was quiet and reserved, always choosing to sit in the back of the classroom. He struggled with writing and grammar, but that is nothing unusual in our courses. He didn’t like to be called on to answer questions, and sometimes would refuse to answer even the simplest of queries. He didn’t like participating in group work, and he never volunteered to read anything aloud. I was careful with him; I had thanked him for his service the first week, as did others. If he didn’t want to talk in class, then so be it. I wasn’t going to push him.
Every semester since 2005, I have had one lone vet in at least one of my classes. In all that time, only two stayed until the end. One student stands out in particular. She not only had returned from Iraq, but she was seven months pregnant and taking my five-unit Spanish 2 course. This is a very difficult, time-intensive class. Not only did she finish the class, she received the highest grade and was a constant inspiration to others. She led the whole class by example and made us a team, as I imagined she might have done in the war. I was so proud of her, and I told her so. She was, in so many ways, a role model for me. I never complained about anything in my life knowing that she was demonstrating, every single day, a kind of fortitude and courage that I could only hope to emulate.
The other student who made it through was jumpy, nervous, unhappy and easily distracted. It was through much patience, effort and accommodation that he managed a “B”, which was a victory for us both. The damage was evident, but he had enough of himself intact that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. He wanted to make it, and he did.
Not even tremendous effort or an iron will can save some of my students from leaving after week three or four. I remember one student who jumped every time a pencil hit the floor, his eyes darting around the room searching for exits. Another vet sat by the door, his body tense, ready to race outside as soon as he thought I might ask him to do anything. Others simply hid quietly in the back, disappearing without notice.
That’s what happened this semester. I didn’t try hard enough to keep my student vet, who was gone so fast that I was barely able to register his presence. I wasn’t sure what to do; he didn’t want any attention, yet attention is what he so desperately needed. I could feel the damage in him, the inability to string sentences together, the difficulty following what we were saying (and no, this was not due to language barriers; the same happened in Spanish and English), and the constant distraction and inability to sit still and listen. His nerves were firing at 100% at every moment. He was the last in and the first out.
I was at a loss. Everything about him required action on my part, yet he was an adult who did not want attention, help or even a sympathetic ear; and so, the cycle continues. The damage under the surface is vast and perhaps irreparable; I know that I need to intervene quickly now, seek out the appropriate assistance on campus and start the process the second I find out that a student of mine is returning from war. I always thank them for their service, but that is not enough. I want them to be able to thank me for mine, as well, when the sixteen weeks are over and they are moving on to another, happier moment in their lives.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, Ph.D.