Veteran Views: ACC Students Conduct Interviews to Help Service Members Transition to College

Three of the five ACC student-veterans conducting interviews of fellow service members are (from left): Virdiana Hernandez, future National Guard soldier; Walter Berduo Morales, U.S. Marine veteran; and Eduardo Marin-Alba, U.S. Marine veteran.

Three of the five ACC student-veterans conducting interviews of fellow service members are (from left): Virdiana Hernandez, future National Guard soldier; Walter Berduo Morales, U.S. Marine veteran; and Eduardo Marin-Alba, U.S. Marine veteran.

A small group of Alamance Community College students who have previously served in the U.S. military are conducting interviews this semester that will help the College minister to veterans transitioning into the community college setting following deployment.

Working under financing provided through a NASA-supported NC Space Grant for Under-Graduate Student Research, the five students received training from the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina to learn how to interview fellow veterans at ACC, an effort aimed at enhancing and promoting STEM education in North Carolina.

Alamance Community College is one of only ten North Carolina community colleges to be selected to receive a grant. The NC Community College Systems office oversaw the distribution of the $40,000 NC Space Grant to ten community colleges, all of which received $4,000. The other community colleges that received grant monies were Asheville-Buncombe, Carteret, Central Carolina, Davidson, Edgecombe, Piedmont, Rowan-Cabarrus, South Piedmont, and Wake Tech.

At this writing, the ACC student team has conducted 25 interviews using Sony digital voice recorders with fellow military veterans who are currently students at Alamance Community College.

Four of the ACC student interviewers are veterans of the U.S. military and the fifth student is a future member of the National Guard. ACC’s team members are:

  • Gisela Rodriguez, U.S. Navy veteran
  • Walter Berduo Morales, U.S. Marine veteran
  • Eduardo Marin-Alba, U.S. Marine veteran
  • Patrick Hope, U.S. Army veteran
  • Virdiana Hernandez – Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (CSTEP) member and future National Guard member

While the promotion of STEM education is the underlying goal of the NC Space Grant, Trotter said she initially sought the funding in order to support the research that directly affects military veterans returning to a college campus.

“We do a good job of transitioning our military veterans into community college and supporting them once they’re here,” explained Trotter. “But I don’t think we really pay attention to what that transition from a military deployment to a civilian or classroom environment feels like to them. What are they going through?”

According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 45,000 vets and active duty service members have died by suicide since 2013. Even more sobering is that the rate of suicide was greatest for veterans in the first three years after leaving service–the transition years. While student veterans persist and complete their certificate or degree at a higher rate than non-veterans, when veterans do drop out it’s because they are 21% more likely to have five or more risk factors (such as academic readiness, having a disability, working full-time, having dependents, and being the first in their family to attend college) associated with non-completion compared to 4% of non-veterans.

Trotter continued: “I got the idea for current military veterans at our college to record audio interviews with incoming veterans to help them speak out about that transition, and how we as educators can better help them in that. Our team wanted to learn what made the transition home easier for some and what difficulties or obstacles others may have encountered.”

The NC Space Grant allowed the College to hire a professional oral historian, Sara Wood, from UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, to provide the student research team in-depth training in interviewing, transcription, and interview ethics. Wood was so impressed with the students’ dedication that she returned her $1,200 fee, which resulted in several additions, including adding another research team member, purchasing more equipment, and paying each student a small stipend.

Volunteering to assist the students with technology is Mercer Bufter, Instructional Technician in Distance Learning at ACC. He ran a workshop for the students to teach them how to transcribe their interviews in Camtasia software.

“We couldn’t have conducted the interviews without the grant,” said Julie Trotter, ACC English instructor whose brainchild this project is.

The efforts of the five ACC student-veterans has paid off in another way. Competing in a poster contest against a pool of NASA interns, graduate student fellows, undergraduate research scholars, and community college research applicants, the ACC team is one of only 64 to be invited to make a presentation at the NC Space Symposium to be held at NC State University in early April to talk about their project.

Symposium speakers will include leaders from NASA and commercial spaceflight industries. Two members of ACC’s research team are interested in interning with NASA and will have the opportunity to speak with NASA professional about their chances.

Following the conference Trotter and the students will prepare transcripts and digital recordings of the veteran interviews for inclusion in a public repository. Already they sent a sample of the team’s work to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, UNC-Greensboro’s Women Veterans Archive Digital Collection, and the State Archives of North Carolina’s Military Collection.