Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veterans Day Reflection: All I Ever Needed to Know about Orienting New Students to College I Learned in the Military

Veteran’s Day has come and gone again. And I am reminded of how much I learned from my military service about helping new college students survive their transition experience. I learned much of this from my two drill sergeants whose names I still remember 43 years later.

One was Staff Sergeant Small, who was about 6 feet, 9 inches tall and whose previous tour of duty had been as a White House Honor Guard. I had never had a teacher so “proud.” And he was my first “teacher” of another race. He had this ability to capture my attention by asking commanding questions. This reminded me of a goal of a goal of a good liberal arts education: that sometimes the question is more important than the answer.

For example he would say: “Listen up: do you want to survive Vietnam? If so, you have to know there are three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Air Force way. And I am going to unlearn you the first two, and learn you the latter!”

So, what were my lessons?

1. First we have to tell our students what we are going to “learn” them. Then we have to “learn” them. And then we have to tell them what we “learned” them. And that’s an exact quote from Sgt. Small.

2. At any college or university, there are three ways to do anything: the right way, wrong way, and the institutional way. We must teach the institutional way.

3. Students learn best, like the troops, when authority figures believe they can be taught and that they can learn.

4. When given the choice, most students will chose to make positive choices to learn to do whatever they need to do to survive.

5. Thus students can be taught and learn “survival skills.”

6. New students need to learn a new language of a new culture, and its history, traditions, customs.

7. College students need a “basic training” for college.

8. Ideally, this is an extended, intentional orientation, preferably dispensed in a credit bearing course.

9. Every institution has a mission, and the sooner the student figures that out, the more likely he/she will achieve a successful fit.

This recollection of my learnings reminds me of how nearly 40 years later we selected a military university as an “Institution of Excellence” in the first college year (I feel another blog coming on!).

-John N. Gardner

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