How college courses for veterans aim to aid transition to civilian life

Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities tackling common, universal prob­lems students face using unique methods.

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

Ericka Schork joined the Marine Corps because she was trying to break free of a traumatic family life.

"I went into it (Marine Corps) with some good thoughts, but didn't do enough research," said Schork, 29, of Huntley, a 2007 Jacobs High School graduate.

After serving four years, Schork returned home in 2015 with emotional scars that made her transition to civilian life even rougher.

With few women serving in the Marines, Schork had struggled to adjust to the "strong male-dominated culture" where, she said, sexual harassment and mockery of female soldiers was prevalent.

"I felt isolated, trapped, inferior. It was the most difficult time of my life," Schork said.

Back home, Schork said people are used to seeing veterans deal with combat-related injuries, but invisible emotional wounds are harder to explain. She said she was diagnosed with military sexual trauma PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and suffered from depression for months.

Then she learned about McHenry County College's The Journey Home project - a series of humanities courses designed to help veterans like Schork reintegrate into society.

It also acknowledges the value veterans bring to the college campus and community.

"We recognize that their experience is profoundly different from a lot of our other students and we are trying to design a curriculum that is aware of this," said Mark Waters, the MCC English professor co-teaching the courses. "They are dealing with issues at home, relationship issues, problems at work beyond the measure that a regular student might be dealing with."

With increasing numbers of returning veterans at the Crystal Lake campus, MCC instructors began seeing the signs of their struggles in the classroom. It prompted the three-year project funded through a nearly $100,000 federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"We are demonstrating the idea that there is something universal about being a soldier and making this journey home," said Todd Culp, professor of history and political science.

Journey Home courses combine history with literature focusing on soldiers' experiences and return from war, and how war has shaped people and nations.

Classes are split between veteran and civilian students. Student veterans are able to share their stories with classmates through classroom assignments. They read from historical journals of other soldiers and are required to keep journals themselves. The aim is to help veterans find a voice and make sense of their experiences, Waters said.

"They haven't had time to process it," Waters said. "It's definitely an environment where people learn to respect each other. They are able to kind of let their guard down. We had one veteran who was raped and she made her presentation on that."

As part of the project, officials have brought in speakers from the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago, whose scholars helped design the Journey Home courses. MCC's student veterans also have recorded interviews for the museum's Holt Oral History Program.

The college also organized a panel discussion in spring 2017 with female student veterans, including Schork, sharing their experiences.

Schork said more such programs are needed for veterans who feel nobody is there to help.

"It helps us all experience together," she said.

A Journey Home world history and literature course will be offered this fall as officials continue to develop the curriculum.

Waters and Culp will share what they have learned from the project with other colleges, presenting their findings at educational conferences this fall and at the Student Veterans of America national conference in January in Orlando.

"We are also building a website that will showcase some of this work of the students themselves," Culp said. "Once (the grant) is over, it's not like we won't continue teaching classes."

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  Former Marine Ericka Schork was part of a panel of female student veterans sharing their experiences for McHenry County College's The Journey Home project. The Crystal Lake college has been offering a series of humanities courses, documenting written and oral histories of student veterans, and building educational partnerships focused on the veteran experience and helping them transition from soldier to civilian life. Rick West/
Ericka Schork
Whitney Morgan of Woodstock shares experiences from her Army service. She joined four other McHenry County College student veterans on a panel during Women's History Month in March 2017. Panelists from left are: Gladys Clark of McHenry, Air Force; Jessica Gasaway of McHenry, Army; Ericka Schork of Huntley, Marine Corps; Morgan; and Carrie Dinovo of Lake Barrington, Marine Corps Reserves. Courtesy of McHenry County College
McHenry County College professors Todd Culp, right, and Mark Waters during a field trip to the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago, whose scholars helped design the college's Journey Home courses helping soldiers transition back to civilian life. Courtesy of McHenry County College
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