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Engaging veterans to become leaders after service

Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement programs bridge military-civilian knowledge gap to empower veterans

Veteran holding books
November 03, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of our Salute to Service coverage, Nov. 1–11. Learn about the schedule of events.

For almost a dozen years, the Pat Tillman Veterans Center has been the entry point for thousands of military veterans who attend Arizona State University.

But the university also has another academic entity that enriches veterans' learning experience while here, and some say it is the frosting on the cake.

The Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement (OVMAE) serves the ASU community — and the growing academic field of veteran studies — by promoting dialogue, teaching and research that increases information, understanding, knowledge and relationships among military, civilian and academic cultures.

They do this by actively listening to student veterans, looking for ways to connect them with faculty and other students and continuing to learn where and how to build bridges between these different cultures and the greater civilian community.

Its director, Manuel G. Avilés-Santiago, knows all about building bridges between different cultures, and about military conflict. Born and raised near the Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, he grew up listening to stories from the battlefield from family and friends.

In addition to his position at OVMAE, Avilés-Santiago is an associate professor of communication and culture in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. He is also the author of “Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship: Representations in Media,” which explores the cultural history of Puerto Rican soldiers and veterans in the media.

ASU News spoke with Avilés-Santiago about what he and his office are doing to help ensure ASU’s status as a military-friendly institution.

Man in fusia shirt with beard

Manuel G. Avilés-Santiago

Question: Can you tell us the function of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, what you do for ASU and how it differs from the Tillman Center? 

Answer: When I started in the role of director of OVMAE, I wanted the office to be the hub for research, teaching and community engagement for issues pertaining to veterans and military-affiliated communities. ASU has a history of being a military- and veteran-friendly institution. This is in part thanks to the amazing work that the Tillman Center has achieved throughout the years as a provider of student-success services to veteran students. Our goal was to expand those distinctions and help transform ASU into a military- and veteran-engaged university. We are doing this through supporting faculty and students who are doing cutting-edge investigations related to veterans, developing curricula and designing programs for the community that will help to bridge the military-civilian knowledge gap.

In addition, we’ve transformed our office’s physical space at ASU Downtown Phoenix campus into a collaborative learning and creative suite, with books and materials available for students, faculty and independent scholars, who can visit and conduct research. 

Q: What exactly is veteran studies?

A: Veteran studies is an emerging field that promotes, engages in, teaches and publishes scholarship about critical issues shaping veterans' experiences, to enhance public understanding, service and advocacy. It’s an interdisciplinary field that gathers experts from the humanities, social and behavioral sciences and education. For example, I got involved in veteran studies through my personal experience growing up surrounded by veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and through my work as a research assistant to the Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. As a trained media scholar, I did my dissertation and first book project about representations and self-representations of Puerto Rican soldiers in the media. Those experiences led me to dedicate part of my teaching and service to ASU to the field of veteran studies.

Last month, OVMAE and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts hosted the national Veterans in Society Conference, which brought together scholars, community leaders, students and the general public to discuss military culture issues like combat exposure, reintegration challenges, veteran resilience and veteran life from historical, cultural and social viewpoints.

Q: What are some of the courses you offer related to veteran studies?

A: In 2017, we received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a certificate in the study of veterans, society and service. Since then, the certificate has grown exponentially. We started with 15 students, and now we are serving more than 150 students each semester. We evolved from a stand-alone certificate to become a concentration as well within the majors in history, organizational leadership and interdisciplinary studies.

Q: Why might someone want to get an academic specialization/credential in veteran studies?

A: In addition to my role of director of OVMAE, I'm also serving CISA (the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts) as associate dean for academic programs and curricular innovation. Part of my goal with that role is to design and implement curriculum for the present and the future, to learn what kinds of knowledge our students could actively implement in their communities. Our veteran studies curriculum is designed based on that imperative.

If we think about it, more than 41 million Americans have served during our nation's history, and around 18 million U.S. military veterans are living today. More than 2.3 million of those 18 million live in Arizona and California alone. 

Each of our veteran and military studies offerings were designed not only with this community in mind, but in response to the emerging demand for individuals who have the skills and cultural competencies needed for careers in military- and veteran-serving industries, public and government service, and community organizations.  

Q: I understand there are a lot of new initiatives and opportunities that have or will launch this year. Can you tell us about them?

A: Every semester we brainstorm about ideas for innovative programs to promote the academic and community engagement of veterans at ASU. For example, we partnered with the Center for Science and the Imagination to pilot the Veterans Imagination Project. In this program, student veterans spend six weeks discovering possible futures through researching industry and societal trends in the area where they have career interests, and have the mentorship of concept artists. At the culmination of the program, the students share their work through publications, online platforms, in-person exhibitions and special events.

Treks4Vets is another successful program, now in its third year. It’s a three-day wilderness-therapy experience for student veterans offered with the support of the Wilver family. Through eco-psychology, philosophical discussions, physical challenges and camaraderie, the program aims to enhance mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health.

More recently we began offering poetry workshops led by Rosemarie Dombrowski, poet laureate of Phoenix and principal lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. In these workshops she discusses some of the reasons poetry is a healing force and guides participants to experience its power by reading and discussing poems written by veterans.

Q: ASU prides itself on welcoming veterans to college and helping them transition back to civilian life. How does the OVMAE help them do this? 

A: Our courses, programs and community initiatives tend to bring together a good mix of veterans, active-duty personnel and civilians. The conversations and debates that emerge — from these film screenings, book presentations, poetry workshops and, of course, our academic programs — are pivotal not only for understanding veterans and military cultures but also to bridge the military-civilian gap.

Most importantly, in these conversations and debates we are generating knowledge and ideas for research — and potentially for public policy. Do we want a civil society that meets veterans where they are? If so, there is a woeful lack of basic research to understand what that would entail.

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images