By Lois Gray
University News Services
University of Iowa student Tamara Woods wants to help veterans stay the course in higher education.
While Woods was serving a clinical practicum at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Hall, the two noticed an emerging pattern of veterans returning to school only to drop out shortly thereafter.
“I really wanted to help veterans be successful in higher education,” said Woods, a 27-year-old Cedar Rapids native and doctoral student in the UI College of Education’s counseling psychology program, “and I was really dismayed at the number of students who weren’t able to complete their education.”
Woods and Hall, a neuropsychologist at the Iowa City VAMC and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, and in the Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations, College of Education, created a new course titled “Life After War: Post-Deployment Issues.”
The course is offered for the first time at the UI this fall with nine student veterans enrolled, thanks to collaboration between UI and the Iowa City VAMC. They will offer the course again on the UI campus and via distance learning to a satellite classroom in Des Moines in the spring.
“Students taking this course will be able to have an understanding of the natural consequences of combat -– that is, that post-deployment issues are a common, natural reaction to the combat experience,” Woods said. “They are not weaknesses, but rather, have very real biological underpinnings.”
In fact, the class was originally named “Biological Psychology and Post-Deployment Issues” for that very reason.
“But we felt the new title better represented the class, and my students actually came up with that name,” said Woods, who said the nine undergraduate students represent a variety of colleges and majors including psychology, Latin and business.
Student veterans returning to the classroom often struggle with failing or poor grades due to post-deployment issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), depression, anxiety, sleep problems, chronic pain and musculoskeletal problems.
Also, due to the fact that student veterans are often older "nontraditional" students, this creates additional barriers for them in connecting with other university students.
Woods and Hall drew on military culture to help students succeed in the classroom.
“This class utilizes some of the greatest veteran strengths: camaraderie and teamwork,” Woods said. “We create an environment where student veterans can feel more connected to their peers and work together on classroom projects designed to address the veteran experience.”
A class like this is especially important to offer since the most recent changes to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill have resulted in increased financial support, resulting in the number of veterans enrolled in post-secondary education increasing significantly, Woods said.
At the UI, there are an estimated 385 student veterans currently enrolled, up from 300 the previous fall. However, the UI graduation rate for veterans is 15 percent lower than the rate for nonveterans, according to a 2009 UI Veterans Task Force Report.
“Issues of hyper vigilance and feeling on guard in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people can be significant distractions for student veterans, a common experience associated with PTSD,” Woods said “By being surrounded by other comrades, veterans report an increased sense of security that allows them to better attend, focus and concentrate on class material.“
The ultimate goal of the class, Woods said, is to increase academic retention and success for UI student veterans.
“While I am the ‘face’ of the class, there are so many wonderful people who have helped along the way, most notably, my advisor Dr. Michael Hall,” Woods said. “The UI and the Iowa City VAMC have also been phenomenal in their efforts to help with the class and their contributed collaboration in order to better serve our veterans.”
Woods’ career goal is to work within the Veterans Administration. She is also completing a second practicum conducting therapy with veterans at the Iowa City VAMC.
“Ultimately, we hope to disseminate this course to other colleges and universities so that individuals from every state will have access to this course,” Woods said. “I love being able to conduct therapy and teach. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Editor’s Note: The class is held this fall Monday evenings from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in Room E226 of the Adler Journalism Building on the UI campus. Call Woods at 319-899-3445 or Lois J. Gray at 319-384-0077 to arrange covering the class.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500