Serving those who Served

Published on November 11, 2022

By Elise Russell

The Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies expands upon EKU’s unique veterans studies academic program, offering outreach to veterans and valuable experiences for students. 

It all started at EKU, with Dr. Travis Martin, ’09 ’11 ’20, veteran and now director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies. Just over a decade ago while working on a master’s in English, Martin began researching the ways veterans use writing “as a way to process the experience of war and define themselves after service.” 

As Martin became immersed in his studies and research, more questions arose around the broader subject of veterans from an academic perspective. Does society understand veterans at all, he wondered? With such diversity among veterans and their experiences, why do we embrace stereotypes? Why does society want to fix veterans and not consider fixing the world to which they return? 

Noticing the prevalence of demographic-focused “studies” programs, such as women and gender studies, Appalachian studies, and others, Martin asked, “Where are the veterans studies programs?” 

At the time, Martin worked with Dr. Brett Morris, former executive director for enrollment management at EKU, whose “Operation Veteran Success” initiative helped establish the university’s strong reputation for serving veterans through the award-winning work of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. Martin credits Morris for “opening the right doors” and “providing the resources needed” to create EKU’s veterans studies academic program (VTS) in 2010. Since then, nearly a dozen other universities across the country have established similar programs.

As EKU’s program grew and evolved, Martin realized many students pursued the VTS minor and certificate programs because they were interested in careers serving veterans. Tying in professional development, outreach and service learning along with the veterans studies curriculum gave way for yet another bold initiative – the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies (KCVS). 

“I wanted to take our academic program and expand it out into the community so that our students can gain the kind of experience that leads to meaningful employment, but also to use service learning to impact veterans’ lives here and now,” Martin said. “Many of our students want to support the veteran community but don’t know where to start. One thing our Center does is allow them to help through internships and co-ops.”

Some of the other KCVS initiatives – many led and organized by students – include the Service-to-Service podcast sharing veteran and veteran-related stories; speakers and educational opportunities for individuals living in the EKU service region; a mentorship program with the Lexington, Kentucky, VA Medical Center; and the Veterans Studies Alliance student organization. 

Boots on the Ground

Recent graduate Jatana Boggs, ’21, created and built the KCVS mentorship program while earning course credit for experiential learning. The program pairs students with professionals who work with veterans, providing connections and experiences to benefit students in their future career pursuits. As a non-traditional and online student, Boggs never thought this level of involvement was possible. 

“It feels great to be part of something that will help both veterans and students for years to come,” Boggs said. The mentoring program has turned into a true passion for Boggs, and she wants to grow it to include other universities, organizations and communities, with the ultimate mission “to increase the services that veterans everywhere are provided.”

A Salute to the Veteran Experience

What started as an alternative assignment in a VTS class turned into an ongoing passion project for Corbin Campus student Samuel Lewis. 

“Let’s march on to the interview!” Lewis says to begin each of his Service-to-Service podcast episodes, followed by the sound of soldiers marching. In an interesting and engaging dialogue, Lewis interviews a veteran or someone in a profession of serving veterans. The first episode features a Marine veteran who founded a contemporary dance company incorporating military themes and stories into art and movement. Subsequent episodes include perspectives of women veterans, art therapy forms, and other various topics and diverse guests. 

“It's interesting how all of these different perspectives come into play and make just a beautiful conversation,” Lewis said. “It’s helping me learn things, but I hope that the audience is learning those things with me.” 

Among listeners’ favorite episodes include interviews with Moe Armstrong, veteran of the Vietnam War, who recounts tales of resilience in his battles against cancer and Agent Orange; and Jim Craig, creator of the veterans studies program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who discusses his journey from military service to academia. Find all episodes of the Service-to-Service podcast.

Valor in the Classroom

When someone in a VTS online classroom was “goofing off” and disrupting the class, Army Veteran LaSheka Mason spoke up. Martin recalled the group was having a serious discussion about combat and personal danger, and Mason directly told the distractor, “If you don’t want to be here, get out. You don’t understand what we’re talking about and how these things impact people’s lives.” The message was received, and the person quietly left the room. From that point forward, Martin put Mason on “guard duty” for the online classrooms.

For taking the lead in maintaining a respectful class environment, Mason was awarded the KCVS Service Learning Award in 2021. 

“Colleges are major sites of transformation for returning vets. It is important that student veterans and non-veteran students interact so that they can figure out who they are. LaSheka is a fantastic example – a veteran turned classroom leader. She educates other students each time she speaks truth to power,” Martin said. 

“I’m actually learning not just about other veterans, I’m learning about me, too,” Mason said. “I reflect on a lot of things that’s happened within my experience, especially on the section of [the class about] soldiers of color and everything that we’ve had to face collectively and individually, just being Black.”  

KCVS started in the fall of 2021, and Martin holds ambitious goals for the Center. He’s continually pursuing new partnerships for internship placements, funding for more student scholarship opportunities and research initiatives. Meanwhile, he continues the work of keeping Eastern Kentucky University at the forefront of this new and exciting academic discipline.

Already, Martin said he’s inspired by the service-oriented community students have created through the Center. 

“They are constantly building each other up and working together, trying to think of the next way to contribute to the community,” Martin said. “These students are getting a worthwhile education while improving people’s lives. I am so proud of what they have accomplished.”