The Stories They Carried: Honors Colloquium Compiles Veterans’ Stories

December 8, 2015

By Hayley Zablotsky / John V. Roach Honors College

Photo by Dr. Dan Williams

Photo by Dr. Dan Williams

Story time is happening in a big way at TCU.

“I truly believe that every veteran has an important story to tell,” said TCU student Olivia Ernst. A TCU Honors Colloquia course allows veterans to do just that.

TCU continually offers a wide variety of Honors Colloquia courses; these courses focus on culture, society, values, global awareness, and the human experience. To fulfill upper-division honors, students have the opportunity to engage in these Colloquia courses and work with a diverse group of professors studying an eclectic collection of topics.

Fall 2015 has marked the first semester of colloquium called On Human Nature: Experiences of TCU Veterans taught by Dr. Dan Williams with support from several co-instructors. In this course, students compile the stories of TCU veterans and their families and work toward publishing these narratives. The TCU Press — also led by Dr. Williams — will publish this collection as a book after a few more semesters of research, writing, and editing in additional offerings of the class. Dr. Williams shared that the honors college and the TCU Press have always maintained a close relationship, so it only made sense for the two to work together on this project.

“The idea is to support TCU’s veterans and to introduce them to the wider TCU community,” Dr. Williams said. He also emphasized that the book will not simply contain “combat stories,” but rather it will encompass a broad range of “military experience.” The book will also include the stories of the spouses and children of veterans and will probably contain as many as 75 to 100 narratives.

This is no small undertaking.

“There is a sizable community of veterans on campus of faculty, staff, and students, and probably an even greater number of alumni with military experience,” Williams said. “The project dates from the 1950s to the present, though if possible we would love to gather reminiscences from WWII veterans.”

The book is set for release on Veterans Day 2017. There will be three more Colloquia courses over the next few semesters to work on the project. Dr. Williams shared that progress has been “exceptionally good.”

Photo by April Brown

Exceptionally good progress relies upon a great many people for this project. In addition to Dr. Williams and the students in his Colloquia course, April Brown — assistant director of Inclusiveness and Intercultural Services and chair of the TCU Veterans Services Task Force — plays a significant role in the project. For the past six years, Brown has led a team of volunteers — a “task force” — to help veterans and their families in their transition to TCU. This support group has shared its stories internally for many years, and the suggestion to move these stories out into the TCU community at large through this Colloquia project was well received.

The idea to compile this book of stories came from author and publisher Ethan Casey, who was visiting TCU in September 2014 to speak as a part of TCU’s global programming Discovering Global Citizenship, the focus of the university’s current Quality Enhancement Plan, part of ongoing academic accreditation. Director of International Student Services John Singleton described Discovering Global Citizenship as “an effort to get students involved globally and get them to apply their degree in a global way.” Because of Ethan Casey’s background as an American who has worked internationally, Singleton said Casey was a great fit for the program.

After Casey participated in the Discovering Global Citizenship programming, he attended a lunch with April Brown and a few others to brainstorm ways to amplify the voices of veterans on campus. Casey recalled that the idea to compile a book was very spontaneous.

“I mentioned to April [Brown] that a friend of mine in Seattle is editing a similar book and giving the opportunity to student veterans to tell their own stories in their own words,” he said. “And before I knew it, that had evolved into ‘Ethan is editing a book of personal stories from TCU veterans.’”

Casey spoke about the “obviousness” of the project and about how putting together such a book is simply something that should be done.

“I don’t think Americans have any sense of what it means to live life with a commitment to the military,” Casey said after pointing out that less than 1 percent of the American population is involved in the military. As far as Casey sees it, the book’s aim is to provide Americans with a “rounded sense” of military life. “And that includes combat but it also includes everything else,” Casey clarified. “There is so much else that people go through in military life.”

Casey said he is learning as the project progresses.

“I am really a representative of the civilian American public that needs to be reached by this book. I am the first reader of the book,” he said. “I am the first person who is being educated by the stories in the book, and I see it as my role — my duty — to share these stories with other Americans.”

Casey and Brown will co-edit the book. They are a great team, according to Casey, because he brings the editorial experience and Brown brings “everything else.”

“April has a great sensitivity toward the situation of TCU students who are veterans and the challenges they face and how the needs they face are different,” Casey explained.

As for Brown’s goals, she said she hopes to educate multiple communities about military life.

“By doing this [book] our communities are in a position to welcome our veterans back and help their transition to civilian life,” she said.

So how does this work? Williams explained the process. Veterans have two choices in sharing their stories: they can either write their own narratives, or they can have an interview with honors Colloquia students, who will transcribe the narratives. Once the students have gathered the stories, they will engage in fact checking, artifact/image locating, text design, and marketing and promotion.

“Students will gain publishing experience in all areas of the TCU Press,” Williams said. Additionally, all of these students will receive credit as assistant editors of the book.

TCU junior Rebecca Ruch, who is currently in the Colloquia course, said she has enjoyed hearing the experiences of so many veterans.

“Each story has been so unique, and there is always something I find fascinating about their [the veterans’] service,” Ruch said. “It’s amazing how what a veteran might view as an ordinary or boring story can be so interesting to me.”

TCU junior Olivia Ernst, another student in the course, has also had a positive experience.

“Veterans have a different perspective and a special appreciation for life,” she said. “The opportunity to be around veterans has given me a different outlook and helped me to appreciate more of what I often take for granted.”

President of the TCU Student Veterans Alliance (and veteran) William Howe shared that many veterans struggle with sharing their stories — especially if they have recently separated from the military. He also said that he hopes the book will help TCU students learn how to interact with TCU veterans based on the veteran needs expressed through the stories in this project.

“There is a saying in the military that ‘All gave some, some gave all,’” Howe said. “I think many people miss this — whether it is injuries that are ‘invisible’ or simply missing time with our families, all veterans pay a price for service.” Howe said he hopes that the book “exposes the emotional and mental toll that veterans pay.”

Howe believes this book is the best way to “get the experiences of veterans into the hands of other students.” These hands seem to be eager, too.

“I found a lot of enthusiasm among the students,” Casey said. “I’m very optimistic about how their interviews are going to turn out.”

The students in this Colloquia class are not the only ones involved at TCU.

“As soon as we started getting word around on campus that we were doing this, various professors, departments, staff, alumni, and even members of the Board of Visitors started coming to us and asking how to be part of this project,” Casey said.

Notably, the theater department and school of art are exploring ways to get involved. TCU department of theatre Chair Harry Parker and some theater students are working toward a dramatic reading of some of the veteran narratives. Additionally, Associate Professor of art and Director of art education Amanda Allison is working on curating some TCU veteran art to be included in the book.

“What’s been rewarding is working with a number of partners at TCU that are supportive of this initiative,” Brown said. “I would not have imagined the opportunities that currently exist when this conversation began, but it shows the support and commitment the TCU community has towards its veterans and their families.”

The hope is that this book can spread beyond the TCU campus. Casey emphasized that he believes that there is potential for the book to be promoted throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Texas at large, and around the whole country.

“I think every university in America should do this kind of book,” Casey said. “TCU is showing initiative in a really important area.”

With the help of this remarkable team, these veterans’ stories will make their way from memory to mouth, mouth to paper, and finally paper to people.

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