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By Dr. Constantina Michalos
Director of Tutorial Services

We were in the Navy for two years, but we were stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a Marine Corps base. Carved out of a national forest and fronting the Atlantic Ocean, it was actually quite beautiful. Jacksonville, the town attached to the base, was another story. Whatever military towns look like, this one was textbook. But I had two babies, so it didn’t much matter where we were stationed. My world was diapers, bottles, runny noses and more diapers. I took up macramé (a psychologist would have a field day with that), and even canned my own fruits and vegetables (anyone who knows me and is reading this is laughing out loud).

One surprise distraction was the opportunity to teach writing at the local community college to marines separating from the military. They had given 20 years of service and were still young enough to embark on new careers. But they had to learn how to write “civilian.” After all this time, their lexicon consisted of orders. Every sentence was a command, and I felt I should stand at attention saluting their papers as I read them. I was in my twenties. They were all older, and they definitely outranked me. I had 16 weeks in which to undo decades-long habits of writing. They threw themselves into the process with the same dedication and commitment that they brought to their national service. And they succeeded.

University Partners with Veteran Employment Agency to Teach Vets a Civilian Way of Life

So I was very excited to repeat this experience at St. Thomas last week. Working with Mike Records of NextOp EDU, the University organized a week-long boot camp for veterans to help them transition from the military to civilian life, specifically to help them navigate higher education. By the way, “transition” is the military’s word. New century, new vocabulary to describe the “separation” from one way of life to another.

Veterans in Class at UST Academic Boot Camp

The boot camp was created on a model of remediation and immersion in writing and math. Six recently or soon-to-be discharged soldiers and two marines from the Houston area and Ft. Polk, Louisiana were recruited.

The group ranged in age from 24-54, and served from four to 22 years in their respective branches. The oldest had worked in oil and gas and was recently laid off in the Houston industry decline. Now he is creating a new opportunity for himself in logistics; one is already enrolled at Houston Community College and hopes to transfer to St. Thomas; one wants a business degree so he can pursue his passion for everything guitar; I nicknamed another “tree hugger” because he wants to be a horticulturist; one wants to be a plumber and his buddy/squadron leader wants to be a welder; two aren’t yet sure what they want to do, but they are both committed to giving themselves the best chance for success.

The Op: Teach U.S. Military Vets to Write a College Admission Essay and a Cover Letter

Before they even got to campus, the group made it clear that they wanted to learn how to write a cover letter and a college admission essay. No small feat for a compressed time period.

This program wasn’t called boot camp for nothing. The vets were on campus for six days, and every moment of their time was accounted for. There was a saying at Lejeune—“If the Marines wanted you to have an idea/family/life (pick one), they would have issued you one.” I casually repeated it to the group, and they nodded in agreement.

Preparing Combat Vets for the ACCUPLACER Test – the Entrance Exam for Texas Public Universities

On their first day, the men took the ACCUPLACER, a standardized test required by the state of Texas for admission to any public university. We used it to see where the vets stood in relation to math and writing skills. I wasn’t surprised to see that not much had changed since Lejeune. They didn’t write in the imperative, perhaps because they weren’t officers, but every sentence read like the rat-tat-tat of a weapon. No details. Just point after point after point, like a military briefing.

We had our work cut out for us, especially since I only had nine hours over two days. It was the same for my colleague in math, Dr. Jack Follis. After class, after team-building activities and more talks, they met with tutors for two hours in each subject to refine what they’d done during the day. Of course there was plenty of eating in between. And more PT to look forward to.

Every morning, UST coaches led the vets in PT. Every meal came with a talk. They learned about college admission processes, financial aid, the GI Bill. The original GI Bill paid a lump sum, and vets had to budget themselves to pay for tuition, books, and living expenses. Since 9/11, the 2008-09 GI Bill pays all tuition and fees and provides a cost of living stipend, with an annual tuition cap of $20,000. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows private universities that opt in to split the difference above this cap with the V.A. This is definitely important information. They also heard from vets on campus who encouraged them with their experiences and inspired them with their tenacity.

We discussed their concerns, their writing strengths and weaknesses, common sentence, usage and verb errors, spelling, punctuation—a semester’s worth of work in nine hours! And, by some miracle, it worked. They wrote impressive cover letters introducing themselves to potential employers or university admission officers; they began their admission essays, but, as I expected given their exhaustive schedules, they experienced writer’s block. Welcome to the club, which includes many distinguished members. So I gave them strategies and my business card. I hope they use it.

In their After Action Review, they gave the program a 95% approval rating. That means a lot.

On their last day, they retook the ACCUPLACER, and they registered improvements in their writing. Well done, gentlemen. I read their second essays over Memorial weekend. It’s the least I can do to say thank you for their service.

About NextOp, a Houston-based firm helping military veterans find jobs

NextOp was founded by Douglas Foshee, a Houston-area oil and gas executive, in 2015. According to its mission,

“NextOp recruits, trains, and places high-performing middle-enlisted military leaders into Industry careers. NextOp provides companies with world-class, skilled candidates and coaches them on how to be effective employees. Our mentors work with each transitioning veteran to adjust to their new roles and cultivate the necessary skills to excel in field work, increasing satisfaction and reducing turnover for these positions. We serve those who have served so many—our hardworking veterans.”

In its first year, NextOp placed 156 veterans.

 

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About the Author — StThomasHouston

The University of St. Thomas is the only Catholic, liberal arts university in Houston, Texas. We have 35+ undergraduate majors including STEM, Nursing, Business, Education and Pre-Med. Located in a vibrant urban environment just minutes from downtown and the famed Texas Medical Center, we welcome students of all races and religions to our diverse and collaborative campus.

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