Easing the Transition to College Life: Vets Bond Together in Speech Class

After serving in a war zone, worrying about insurgents and roadside bombs, it’s sometimes hard to fit in at college, where many of your classmates are more concerned about the latest cell phones or what’s on Facebook.

But for a handful of veterans at Valencia College, there’s one place where they feel at home  a speech class that is open only to veterans. It’s designed to help veterans overcome their fear of public speaking – and, at the same time, help ease the transition from the military to college life.

“It’s nice to be in a class with people who understand me,” says Ashley Powell, a former Marine whose job included handling the paperwork for Marines who were killed in action. Now married to a fellow Marine, she finds camaraderie in the speech class that she hasn’t found in others.

The class is the brainchild of Valencia speech professor John Creighton, a former veteran.  Because speech is a required entry level course at Valencia, everyone has to take it — including returning vets. But Creighton noticed that when veterans stood up to speak  about their experiences, the poignant or difficult experiences that they described often went right over the heads of most of their classmates.

“The idea for the class came from one student who had served two tours in Iraq,” Creighton said. “He started speaking about his experiences and I could see in his eyes that he was reliving it – but I looked around the class and they didn’t get it.”

The “vets-only” speech class kicked off in August and has been a hit with the students, who come from all branches of the military and whose duties ranged from submariners to the Army infantry. The students often come to the classroom to hang out before class and have worked on projects together, to send care packages to soldiers stationed overseas, some of whom are their friends.

“We share stories, we relate to the same kind of stuff,” says Valencia student Ty Ortiz, 24, who served four years in the Army, including one year in Iraq and another year in Korea. “That’s the bond that we all share with one another.”

Other colleges around the country are experimenting with veterans only classes, including Collin College near Dallas, which offers a full year of entry-level classes that veterans can take together,  and Ohio State University, which is offering one or two courses for veterans only.

At Valencia, 14 students signed up for the first semester. But Creighton plans to offer the course again in the spring — and is spreading word about the course. Based on the reaction of his current students, it should be popular.

“If I had the choice,” says Ortiz, who hopes to study for a career in homeland security, “I would love to take all my classes with other vets.”