Saint Leo to launch nation’s first veteran studies bachelor’s program

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Delece Smith-Barrow

By Olivia Sanchez

For almost as long as there have been wars, there have been people who study veterans. Until now, the work has been done by students of sociology and psychology and anthropology. But a specific degree program to study veterans is being launched this fall at Saint Leo University in central Florida. Believed to be the first in the country, the bachelor’s degree program in veteran studies is designed to break down and examine the veteran experience, from decision to enlist to service to discharge and beyond.
 
At Saint Leo, about one third of the student population is connected to the military in some way, including actively enlisted members, veterans and their spouses and children. But Luke McLees, director of Saint Leo’s office of military affairs and services, said the program is open to and valuable for all students, regardless of their veteran status.
 
And it will differ from programs in military studies at colleges around the country, which focus on strategy, military systems and the history of warfare.
 
Will Hubbard, the interim chief policy officer at the advocacy group Veterans Education Success, said a veteran is different from someone actively serving, but it’s impossible to decouple the two. He said veteran studies is more about the long-term impacts of war than the logistics of arming and deploying forces.  
 
The students at Saint Leo will start with a course that takes a holistic look at the veteran experience, McLees said, and then move to a class that looks at “legendary warriors” from wars across time and geography outside the United States, and a course specifically focused on Native American veterans serving two sovereigns. For elective courses, he said, they will be able to choose from topics like conflict resolution, death and the meaning of life, the role of military in the modern world, military psychology, human memory, social ethics, human behavior in crisis, political psychology and an array of other courses on specific wars.
 
The 39-credit curriculum is designed so that students can double major. Students also have the option of pursuing a 15-credit minor in veteran studies.
 
Karen Hannel, the chair of Saint Leo’s interdisciplinary studies department, said she hopes more schools will consider adding four-year veteran studies programs.
 
For academics who haven’t served in the military, Hannel said, “maybe this hasn’t been part of their life, they’ve never thought to look through this lens, but when it’s presented to them, I think they’re suddenly going to start seeing stories, artwork, policies, things they have known for years, decades maybe, in a different light.”
 
McLees hopes that, as more people become educated about the veteran experience, it will dispel stereotypes about veterans and help nonveterans understand the implications of military service.
 
The program at Saint Leo comes nearly a decade after the first veteran studies minors began appearing in course catalogues around the country, said Jim Craig, an associate dean at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. He said he believes Missouri’s program, first offered in 2014, was among the first in the country.
 
Craig said it’s an effort to get more people thinking about veterans beyond “simply standing up at a baseball game and cheering.”
 
“We’d like you to ask deeper questions—instead of ‘thank you for your service,’ how about ‘tell me about your service,’ or ‘explain to me what you did,’” Craig said.
 
Craig said he modeled Missouri’s program after that of Eastern Kentucky University, which had launched a year earlier. 
 
“If you look at the history of women's studies programs on campuses, or Latino Studies on campuses, a lot of that is a groundswell of students saying ‘I want to study this,’ advocating, agitating in all sorts of ways. And, then the university responding with programs that start to develop around those degrees,” Craig said. “There is not a groundswell of veteran students clamoring to say, ‘I want to study my experience more deeply.’ I think there should be, but there isn't.”
 
Advocates hope the interdisciplinary nature of these programs means students will be well equipped to go into jobs in advocacy, social work, business consulting, disaster and recovery services, law or education, among others.
 
Though at Missouri the program is housed in the Department of Military and Veteran Studies, Craig said there is a distinct difference between the two.
 
Military studies tends to focus on defense strategy, history and force readiness, whereas veteran studies focuses on the way these things affect people while they are coming in and out of their primary culture.
 
Hubbard of Veterans Education Success said he thinks of veterans as alumni of the military, whose experiences merit study.
 
Send story ideas and news tips to osanchez@hechingerreport.org. Tweet at @oliviarsanchez. Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report.
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