Virginia Military Institute professors Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson have taken on a special project to help veterans transition from the service to the classroom. But each arrived at their project from different paths.
"I was the first woman assigned to an amphibious assault ship in the U.S. Navy," says Alexis Hart, a veteran.
Roger Thompson, however, was an academic, completely detached from the war, until he began a correspondence with a former student who was fighting in Iraq.
"Here's this former student of mine, fighting a war, doing this amazing work, and I'm digging in the papers of Ralph Waldo Emerson and wondering, you know, who's really doing real work here," says Thompson.
This bridge between academia and military service is exactly what Thompson and Hart are after. They're traveling the country, coaching professors on how to welcome and support veterans. During their training sessions, the two teachers hear a lot of stories about veterans in the classroom, but there's one story that's told everywhere they go: veterans bring maturity and discipline to their classes.
"On the one hand, the veteran is lifting up the stereotypical freshman college-type student, coming from privilege and may not be taking it seriously, says Thompson. "On the other hand, the veteran is himself or herself, learning that some of the kind of rigidity that he or she may approach learning may be best to kind of give way a little bit."
Hart agrees with Thompson that the relationship between veterans and traditional students is a two-way street.
"So many stories of the value of having a veteran in the class, someone who says, 'Look, put away your phone, the professor's talking,' or who says, 'Hey, let's take a minute and think about what's really important here.' When that is happening both ways, and really with professors too, professors, other classmates and the veteran, when they're working in synchronicity, that's really powerful."
Thompson and Hart say that getting veterans into classrooms is about more than academics. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans acutely aware of invisible war wounds, like brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thompson and Hart believe that writing in classrooms can help heal those invisible wounds.
"Veterans are writing their stories," says Hart. "They're writing them down. The very nature of writing itself has been very, very powerful for so many students."
"Writing can heal, can transform lives, and I've been humbled," says Thompson.
Virginia's attorney general Ken Cuccinelli will face former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe in November to become Virginia's 72nd governor.