Veterans Imagination Project helps vets craft future narratives, find success
Leaving the military can be one of the most anxious and stressful moments of a service member’s life.
Whether their enlistment is four years or 20, their time in the U.S. Armed Forces is regimented, highly organized and spelled out in black and white. The expectations are very clear.
But once they are discharged, everything changes. And that can be challenging.
Arizona State University’s Bob Beard knows this all too well. When he left the Marines in 1999, he was given less than three days to make that transition.
“Too often, separating from the military is treated as a simple job change or a relocation, but the truth is it’s far more complex than that,” said Beard, a senior program manager for ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “We’re asking these folks to find a new community, learn new cultural competencies and develop a post-service identity in a world that is radically different than the one they just left. Navigating this broad possibility space is more than simply checking boxes — it requires thinking out of the box entirely.”
Beard and his colleagues often give guiding advice to large organizations, asking them to think about how the future of their work might change over the next few decades. After a while, he thought people transitioning out of the military could similarly benefit from these skills.
And that’s how the Veterans Imagination Project was born.
The Veterans Imagination Project was created in spring 2022 to empower veterans in transition by providing them with future thinking and collaborative imagination skills. Participants learn over the course of eight weeks how to research a desired career and examine the influences and impacts that define that field through foresight activities, scenario planning and speculative storytelling.
Students in the class — veterans and service members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces — interview mentors in their chosen field and work together to identify trends and potential opportunities in those industries. Collaborating with other cohort members, instructors and guest speakers, they begin to craft a narrative about their future careers and their places in them.
Military transition and post-service employment are timely topics, studied by scholars and taken up by veterans service organizations around the nation. Last fall, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published its recommendations to improve the military’s formal transition assistance program, which prepares service members for civilian careers.
Beard sees this project, with its emphasis on forecasting and long-term planning, as "another tool in a veteran’s toolbox."
What a toolbox it is, though.
After working for weeks to create plausible future-oriented scenarios, participants meet with a concept artist who helps bring these visions to life.
“If you can give someone a photo or rendering of them in a job 10-to-20 years from now, they can see the possibility of a future for themselves in that field,” said Raymond Lopez, a California-based concept artist who has worked with the Veterans Imagination Project since its inception.
“They can look at that picture and say, ‘This is my goal and I’m going to get there.’”
Lopez said he gathers information from participants regarding their profession, where they see themselves in the future and how they look in that job by creating a 3D rendering using a combination of software programs, including Photoshop, Blender and Lightroom.
“It can take days or weeks depending on the difficulty of the concept,” Lopez said, “but the end result is that it’s extremely helpful to people in the program. I’ve had several (students) reach out to me later and tell me how it inspired them.”
Lopez had the chance to meet a few of these participants in person at the Future Visions showcase held June 29 at the Coachs’ Club inside Sun Devil Stadium — and he wasn’t alone.
Attendees and partnersPartners of the Veterans Imagination Project include the Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, The Pat Tillman Veterans Center, CommLab, the ASU Foundation, the Mesa Veterans Resource Center, the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and the Phoenix Veterans Center. from around ASU and across the community gathered to see Lopez’s art and learn from the students who collaborated with him, as a part of a culminating event sharing the methods and results of the Veterans Imagination Project.
It was there that Marine veteran and former project intern Scott Breshears admitted he didn’t find the program very helpful — at first.
He simply didn’t buy into the concept when he was discharged in 2020 after a five-year stint. He said he thought he “had his stuff together” and being in the program required imagination and vulnerability, which was “a side I didn’t flex very often.”
“Once I let that wall down and allowed myself to be vulnerable, the program offered a concrete vision of a future,” said Breshears, who received a degree in microbiology from ASU in 2022 and currently works for HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center. He is also applying for medical school.
“When you have something concrete, then you can build on it.”
In the spring, Breshears returned to the Veterans Imagination Project as a volunteer peer mentor assisting others in the class.