After serving in our nation’s armed forces, many veterans make their way back to the classroom, and whether finishing their bachelor’s degree or going on to earn their master’s or doctorate, University College at Washington University in St. Louis offers a wide variety of options and fields of study that appeal to veteran students. To mark Veterans Day, two such students share their experiences.
Robert Watkins, International Affairs
Robert Watkins has been in the Air Force for almost eight years, working first with munitions before moving into intelligence. Though currently on active duty, he is also studying to earn an advanced certificate in international affairs through the program at University College.
Watkins says that he “had been putting off doing graduate school for years, looking for a challenging program that could be done in a classroom on nights or weekends.”
“I very much wanted a rigorous academic environment, with reading groups, lectures, and cross-disciplinary events I could go to outside of class,” he says. “UCollege had that.”
Particularly, the international affairs program and its faculty impressed Watkins. “So many pastime programs highlight their online classes and unobtrusive schedules, which always gave me the impression you would be going to school just to check a box for a credential, not much of an education. WashU did not give me that impression.”
The advanced certificate in international affairs also builds beautifully from Watkin’s experiences and undergraduate degree in philosophy and political theory. He says, “Having spent several years overseas, living and working abroad, and working in national security, I thought international affairs would be a way to combine my interests and experience. Also, I thought, as I get ready to leave active duty, this would be a good way to explore new avenues and opportunities.
Romarilyn Ralston, Liberal Arts
Romarilyn Ralston is in her final year of the two-year master’s of liberal arts program at University College. A native of St. Louis, she joined the Navy as a jet engine mechanic in 1982, right out of high school. When asked about her reasons for joining the Navy, her answer is one word: “Poverty.” She says there wasn’t much guidance toward further education in her high school. Instead of college admissions advisors, military recruiters were frequently present. “There were a lot of [military] recruiters seeking you out,” she says, “and you know, it was a good feeling to know people who wanted you.”
Ralston left the Navy in 1986 to live and work in California, and eventually she pursued an undergraduate degree with a major in gender and feminist studies, a field that allowed her to engage with many issues close to her heart. Once she graduated, she turned back toward the Midwest in order to follow a childhood dream: to attend Washington University.
The liberal arts program at University College gives Ralston the flexibility to pursue several areas of interest. She says, “I thought choosing a degree which brings together all of these disciplines would be a nice way of furthering my education. And it has been.”
Outside of academics, returning to St. Louis has in some ways been challenging. Only a few months after she’d arrived to attend University College, Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson. For Ralston, the events hit very close to home. “I was living in North County with my sister, and my nieces actually live in Ferguson. It was kind of surreal to be in an environment where something like this police shooting happens, but to see the community rally around it and protest against police brutality and violence in our community was really a great experience for me, but also a sad experience.”
Through her studies, Ralston has been able to approach these difficult experiences in another way. She has begun working toward her final capstone project, focused on black women and colorism. She says, “I love unpacking and interrogating race, and how that impacts my life and the lives of people that I know - my family members and friends who are also African American, and different shades of brown. Being here in St. Louis has really made race and class more visible to me. And I want to look at race and class through the lens of colorism.”
Veterans and University College
Ralston and Watkins are just two of many veteran students who have found their way to University College, says Elisa Wang, an academic advisor and coordinator of student services who also oversees the University College Veteran’s Club. Currently, the club’s membership sits around 25 students, but it’s gone up as high as 40. University College participates in the Yellow Ribbon program, and hosts a number of other support activities for veterans.
“We have a lot of veteran students who are here using their GI benefits, and then we have a lot of students here who have been in the military who don’t identify strongly, who aren’t using the benefit, and their service just happens to come up in conversation,” says Wang.
These students’ experiences cross all branches of the military over many eras, from Vietnam to post-9/11, and their chosen areas of study range as widely as their experiences. “They represent a cross section of the student body, just as they represent a cross section of the country, but they all have that common service experience in their life.” Wang says. “They highlight what we see in continuing education, where your life experience and your classroom experiences support each other.”
Like many continuing education students, veteran students face the challenges of balancing their education with families and jobs – with the additional potential challenge of being called into active duty. And since the VA benefit towards education is only good for a limited amount of time, Wang says she’s seen veteran students go to extraordinary lengths to finish their degrees in time. “I’ve seen a few students who earned two degrees in 3 years. They started off with a lot of transfer credits, but we have a BS/MA program, and they would take 16 or 18 credits each semester, which is hard to do in an evening program. They would do online classes, independent study, internships, and just do amazing work.”
In order to have this type of success, Watkins and Ralston have some advice for fellow veterans who are considering a return to the classroom.
“I would suggest veterans getting ready to go back to school really focus on something they feel motivated to study,” Watkins advises. “If you are passionate about it, you will do well at it. Chances are your military experience helped you identify either what you wanted to do (or what you definitely never want to do again). Use those insights and your passions to figure out what you want to study and then do.”
Ralston says regardless of background, she encourages everyone to consider furthering their education if they have the desire. “Whether you’re a veteran, a single parent, or thinking about changing careers, or just want to reinvent yourself, education is always the best way to go about that. There’s just always something to learn, and we should all be lifelong learners. No matter where you are, we’re all teachers; we’re all students. So most definitely I would suggest it, recommend it, support it for anyone.”