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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Combat to College: Student Veterans in Academic 'Contact Zones'


In the current all-volunteer U.S. military, many low-income recruits enlist primarily for educational benefits. Yet many veterans encounter serious difficulties in transitions to civilian schools and do not graduate. While extensive research explores methods of military training and the effects of military service on socio-economic outcomes for veterans, little has been written about ways disjunctures between military and civilian pedagogies and culture shape veterans in civilian school settings. Using Lave’s analysis of situated learning and Pratt’s notion of ‘contact zones,’ this paper explores identities and practices of U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they re-enter community colleges and university classrooms.In-depth interviews, classroom observation and analysis of everyday discourse of veteran support organizations show disjunctures between soldiers’ lived reality and the discursive constructions of ‘warrior/hero’, ‘baby-killer’ and ‘student.’ As they re-enter the civilian world, soldiers not only contend with these shifting identities, they also encounter educational institutions that do not easily respond to them as students. This research finds that conflicting teaching, learning and cultural norms of military and civilian institutions, combined with enforced silences about the wars, exacerbate academic challenges.

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