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Arizona State recruits veterans to be teachers

PHOENIX -- Sgt. Steve Perez's time in the Marine Corps brought him "action and adventure" in Afghanistan, Australia and Japan.

But as his time on active duty drew to a close, he set his sights closer to home.

``I had a decision on my hands as to what I wanted to do with my career,'' said Perez, 28. ``I thought, `What field would be more worthwhile than investing in our human resources through education?' The clear answer was to become a teacher to work with students.''

The Phoenix resident enrolled in the education program at Arizona State University.

Now a junior, he is prepping for a student-teaching position and the middle-school math gig he hopes will follow.

Perez said his military experience, like that of other veteran students, is ``adding a really unique element to the classroom that's been received really favorably.'' Especially helpful are the leadership and disciplinary skills.

The university agrees.

Come Feb. 18, the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, the College of Technology and Innovation and the Pat Tillman Veterans Center will co-host an open house geared toward making enrolling in the education program easier for veterans, according to Teachers College Assistant Dean Connie Pangrazi.

The open house, which ASU has advertised nationally, will run from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Polytechnic campus in Mesa, 7001 E. Williams Field Road.

Prospective veteran students and their families can tour the campus' married and family housing and discuss transcripts, admissions and financial aid with advisers.

They can meet veteran students like Perez, as well as Teachers College faculty and alumni.

They will also have computer access to submit their applications, with application fees waived for those who apply at the workshop or within 24 hours.

``Lots of (potential veteran students) have different backgrounds, and sometimes there are obstacles to overcome,'' Pangrazi said. ``We're trying to make it as obstacle-free as possible, so that they have the same opportunities (as traditional students).''

ASU in general has begun to push harder to reach veterans in recent months.

Last week, it launched the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, which is ``designed to connect veterans and university communities and create venues that reflect veterans' voices and experiences.''

Because of those experiences, veterans often thrive in professions like social work or education, said the Tillman Center's director, Capt. Steve Borden.

``We have an-all volunteer force today, which means that our servicemen and women are typically ... a type of individual that understands this idea of serving a greater good and being willing to commit themselves to what is in other people's best interests,'' he said.

Veteran students also tend to get some level of real-world teaching experience before arriving at ASU, Borden said. That gives them an edge in terms of an applied understanding of effective instruction.

``As soon as you start making rank or getting some scope of responsibility -- even if it's just looking at the infantry side, where someone who's a member of the squad becomes a fire-team leader -- they then take on a role of needing to train and educate the people who are under them,'' Borden said.

``(Veterans) know that people don't succeed and get where they want to be without somebody teaching them and mentoring them.''

Brian Bielinski, an Army National Guard sergeant and a senior in ASU's teaching program, outlined a handful of parallels found during his time as a student teacher.

``As a squad leader, you have to keep track of each soldier, what his family life, pay, all that stuff is,'' he said. ``You're up talking to people almost every week, which helped me communicate and be a better public speaker and comfortable in front of my peers and now children.

``You also learn how to keep everything in order -- do paperwork, be prepared, time management -- and those core values are very prevalent in terms of how it relates to teaching.''

That's not to say the transition to teaching is always seamless.

Some students don't know how to maximize their GI Bill benefits or how those benefits work after they arrive as transfer students. Many support spouses and children.

After the veterans make it through their undergraduate coursework, student teaching can prove an ``interesting dealing with reality'' as they work with ``students who have to be in school, versus want to be,'' Borden said.

``They (veterans) need to realize that the education they were involved in was adult education and that the individuals who were their pupils had a vested interest in learning for their own professional interest, which is not always the case with students,'' he said. Then, once they get a permanent job, they can face a ``clash of ideologies.''

``The education environment or culture here at Arizona is different than what you're going to find in, say, the Northeast,'' Borden said. ``If an individual is trying to become certified to teach in their home state, the environment that they may find when showing up as a military member on a campus in a lot more liberal setting -- that can present some challenges.''

Part of the university's role while veteran students are on campus is to equip them with the skills to handle each of those potential pitfalls. Making sure they know they'll have support along the way will be a central part of the open house, according to Pangrazi.

``We're working ... to make sure that they know that we would like them in the profession, and that we'll work with them,'' she said.

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