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Program helps veterans reckon with reintegration

Veterans Imagination Project helps vets craft future narratives, find success


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Marissa Sanchez, a third-year food and nutrition entrepreneurship student and a member of the current Veterans Imagination Project cohort, takes a picture of her imagined future during the Future Visions showcase on Thursday, June 29, in the Coachs' Club at Sun Devil Stadium. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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July 06, 2023

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.

Creating a meaningful path

The pilot program initially launched with three ASU student veterans.

Last spring, Beard and his team received a $50,000 grant from the ASU Foundation’s Women and Philanthropy and have expanded this work into the community with great success.

"The Veterans Imagination Project is an exciting opportunity for ASU Women and Philanthropy donors to support veterans in their transition from the armed services to civilian life," said Rebecca Baker, an ASU Women and Philanthropy donor and grant review committee member. "Offering more than educational opportunities, the program’s mission — to guide veterans toward creating a life path that is fulfilling — meets multiple needs of individuals departing military service. It is this totally unique approach to helping veterans, who give so much to our society, that appealed to Women and Philanthropy supporters."

Beard said the grant money enabled more service members to take part in workshops this past fall at the Mesa Veterans Resource Center and the CommLab at the ASU West campus. The workshops included ASU student veterans and former and active service members from the community.

Marissa Sanchez and Derek Wilson were beneficiaries of those workshops.

Sanchez, a Navy veteran who was in security forces, went in an entirely different direction when she was discharged in 2022. She enrolled in ASU’s College of Health Solutions to get a degree in food and nutrition entrepreneurship, and said the Veterans Imagination Project was the perfect complement to her degree.

“The program made me think more about the future of my profession,” said Sanchez, who has created a food preparation company. “There’s a very good possibility the food chain could be impacted in 10 years with over-resourcing, over-farming, overfishing and pollution. It made me really think about how this might impact my business and world nutrition.”

She’s already developed some signature dishes like huevo rancheros, squash blossoms and four different types of ceviche.

“I want people to get excited about food and get them to think of new ways to prepare and cook locally sourced food and vegetables. Basically, cook what’s around us each day,” she said. 

For Derek Wilson, the tastiest dish is redemption.

He served in the Air Force from 2003 to 2014 and worked in security forces as a canine handler detecting explosives. After five deployments in the Middle East, he was forced to medically retire after “physical and mental injuries” sustained on the battlefield. Afterward, substance abuse issues caused him to lose his house, and his wife and three children were homeless for several months.

“I went down a pretty dark path with the criminal justice system and ended up in jail one time; almost ended up in prison another time,” said Wilson, who is a student success advocate for ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center. “I was at a point in my life where I had to make some pretty big decisions."

Wilson eventually got sober, found employment in social work and transferred from Glendale Community College to ASU in fall 2022. He participated in the ASU West campus cohort of the Veterans Imagination Project and graduated a few weeks ago. Like Breshears, he too was skeptical of the program.

“I’ve been working on my transition for years and I thought there’s no way Bob or anyone could teach me how to successfully transition in eight weeks,” Wilson said. “Bob said, ‘Transition is personal. I simply want you to be able to forecast what the future’s going to look like for you.’”

Wilson said that bit of wisdom was the turnaround for him. He began focusing on how artificial intelligence could enhance social work. He took courses on Google DeepMind, reached out to a renowned professor in the field and thought about how to advance his career — by creating an AI system that could help co-pilot social services.

“The system would basically listen and pick out key words and help fill in background information while the social worker can focus entirely on the client,” said Wilson, who has a 3.96 GPA and is three semesters away from collecting his diploma. “AI would be doing all the homework while the social worker can offer sympathy, support and build trust with the clients and have more meaningful conversations.”

Perhaps even more meaningful is the example Wilson is setting for his family.

“Now I go home, and my kids see my success and it makes them want to do well at school,” Wilson said. “Since I started ASU, my wife has also gone back to school. It seems the more I put into it, the more I’m getting out of it.”

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