By Kimberly Rivera
Over the summer, Texas A&M University-San Antonio faculty and staff received a Military Cultural Competency training to accommodate the university’s 18 percent military-connected student population.
Groups of faculty, returning to campus for their summer orientation, were provided online training and face-to-face discussion designed to help them ‘teach, mentor and serve’ the military-connected student population.
K.C. Kalmbach, associate professor of psychology, recognized that meeting the needs of the university’s military-embracing initiative, which includes 15 percent active duty/veteran, 3 percent dependents, would mean targeted training.
“It needs to be more than a logo. How do we actually embrace this community and support them so that they’re successful,” Kalmbach said. “That’s the hard thing, enrolling them is easy.”
Kalmbach explains enrollment is not the only task the university should help students with. The public university must also ensure student success by competing courses and reduce risk of incompletion.
The proposal for a training began with university president, Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, along with associate professor of psychology, Kalmbach and A&M-San Antonio’s Military Affairs office.
Along with faculty, psychology and sociology major, Jose Ramirez; alumni Daniel Rendon and Karen Luna conducted research with Kalmbach on the MCC training to equip faculty with knowledge about military culture.
During the research, Kalmbach noticed many veterans desired higher education but feared all the obstacles they would face.
One of the conflicts military students encounter in higher education includes the ability to think freely, according to Kalmbach. Class discussions often incorporate brainstorming and opinions which can be difficult for a veteran student to express.
“For a military student entering a classroom it can be sort of confusing for them when we ask to think outside the box,” Kalmbach said. “In the military setting that’s not what the game plan is… [it’s] ‘this is what you need to do, go and execute it.’”
According to an American Council on Education 2014 study, the national average age for a military student entering higher education is 25 years old. Military-connected students are nontraditional since they do not go to college right after high school or are dependent on family.
Kalmbach compares both cultures as collectivistic versus individualistic. In the military, members are told what to do and carry out a mission whereas higher education lets you explore and speak for yourself.
While veterans and active duty members undergo a difficult transition to higher education, military spouses and dependants also face problems.
Military spouse and A&M-San Antonio alumni, Karen Luna, remembers the struggle of attending night classes while being a new mother.
“I basically lived there, all day Tuesday and Thursday, usually at least 15 credit hours,” Luna said.
Luna attended A&M-San Antonio during a unique time when most students were nontraditional.
A military spouse, she participated in the research with Kalmbach for professors to gain a better perspective of what a military-connected students goes through.
“I wanted the professors to have more understanding of the military life. Only a few percentage are part of or know someone in the military, making a cultural gap,” Luna said. ‘The training, I hope, would bridge that gap and bring the professors to understand ‘Oh, okay, that’s how it is.’”
This fall was the first semester A&M-San Antonio accepted first and second-year students.
“That was the beauty of A&M-San Antonio for military students is that they could actually feel a lot more similar to our students. We had an average age around 30, which is not traditional at all,” Kalmbach said. “That’s probably why A&M-San Antonio felt like a good home for military students, it’s because they didn’t feel so out of place like they might in a younger demographic.”
The instructional goals of the training were to explain the importance of MCC, familiarize faculty with military terms, describe roles of a military-affiliated person, outline strengths and challenges and develop strategies for success.
The first module reflects the tradition of a military-friendly campus starting with the A&M flagship, College Station. A&M-College Station is one of six designated senior military colleges.
For faculty and staff who are unfamiliar with the military culture, module two addresses the lingo, customs, ranks and major events.
Module three of the MCC training focuses on the transition challenges and barriers a military-connected students experiences. Modules 4 and 5 further helped professors gain a better understanding of military-connected students and learn to accommodate students in the classroom.
Retired Air Force veteran of 25 years and associate professor of history, Dr. Edward Westermann, was impressed by the effort to accommodate a unique group of students at A&M-San Antonio.
“It helps us as educators…anything we know about our student community makes us better educators in responding to pressures they face,” Westermann said.
Associate professor of history, Amy Porter, has experience with military members but gained insight on how to use the training in her classroom.
“Some of the military students are used to very clear instruction, so from my perspective, I think it’s important to go back and look at the syllabi, look at the assignments and make sure everything is really clear and straightforward,” Porter said.
Military students offer many things such as worldly knowledge, a higher maturity level, performing to an expectation, and leadership skills to name a few.
“As faculty and staff learn more about this culture and population it’s going to make them more comfortable engaging with military students,” Kalmbach said. “It’s also going to make military students feel like they can come to you and have conversations in class.”
Army Veteran and A&M-San Antonio history major, Carlos Gomez, feels a training is not required because he doesn’t want others to think “let’s not offend this group.”
However, the purpose of the training is not to single out the military community.
“[It’s] not a sensitivity training, not ‘be careful’, it’s about awareness and education,” Kalmbach said. “We do trainings for other groups to increase awareness and understanding because at the end of the day it’s about making everybody feel like they have a place at the table.”
A significant effort made by the university to accommodate military-connected students is Patriots’ Casa.
Established in 2014, the Patriots’ Casa is an academic building that offers students help with the application process, establishing VA benefits, counseling and other resources students may need.
“We can help in the admission process, we do not make the determination, but we can assist in making sure they [students] get their necessary documents and fix any hiccups.” director of Military Affairs, Richard Delgado Jr., said.
According to Delgado, the Patriots’ Casa is in the process of hiring an academic advisor for military-connected students by Dec. 1.
“A lot of what we suggested can be used for all disciplines,” Delgado said. “While it is military in theme, it can be used for everybody.”
Other universities have reached out to Kalmbach for suggestions on a cultural competency training for their military-connected students.
On Oct. 13, Kalmbach spoke about the Military Cultural Competency initiative at the TAMU system Military & Veteran Educational Support Symposium at Texas A&M-Prairie View. Attendees were interested in learning about the MCC training and used tips to start their own.
Considerations for future training
The university does not have plans for a required MCC training for students but will consider an optional workshop, either on-campus or online, where students can learn more about military-affiliated students.
Another suggestion is a mentor program where senior level students can help first-year military-connected students in their transition to a college setting.
“We know that students who are engaged and feel like they belong are more likely to stay at their college, so it predicts retention and graduation,” Kalmbach said. “That’s what it’s really about, increasing awareness so that we can facilitate that sense of belonging.”