In my first term, AHE 548: American Higher Education introduced the ideas of historical context as they related to our present day institutions. The nine colonial colleges were based on a predominantly British model, where students, an elite group of white males, were taught by rote from Western classical texts (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). These colleges were concerned with educating men for positions in law, in government, and in the clergy and included coursework on Greek and Latin, rhetoric, logic, and music, a classical liberal arts curriculum (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). Yet as the student body demographics changed, so too did the missions of institutions. Beginning in the 1820s, several prominent reformers began to adopt a German model that reflected the ideals of a research institution, focused on creating new knowledge as well as imparting vocational and technical knowledge in addition to the liberal arts (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). However, this new model did not take a serious hold until the Morrill Act of 1862, or the first Land Grant Act, provided land in order to establish endowments for the creation of universities that would serve the state, placing research, service, and practical education to create an informed workforce at the forefront (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). These conflicting views of education are still very much alive in the discussion of the value of higher education’s focus either on the liberal arts or practical professional training for a particular career. Currently, it seems the trend, because of the recent economic downturn, is pushing higher education toward a more vocationally specific and career focused curriculum. However, the liberal arts education is still hailed as a valuable endeavor by many, dependant on the mission of the institution.
As part of this coursework, I was able to investigate a particular aspect of student life over time, and I chose to focus my energies on services for student veterans. I found this topic to be important to investigate because of the increasing population of student veterans coming to college after serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believed that, in order to best serve the present population of students with this identity, it would be useful to understand the historical context for services. To my surprise, it was the emergence of the large entering population of student veterans after World War II with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill, that created a need for student services and student affairs as we know of them today. Millions of students, many of whom would not have otherwise gone to college, took advantage of the benefits accorded to them in the GI Bill and by 1947, 49% of college students were veterans (Wilson, 1995). The students demanded and needed services that campuses had never provided before, including developmental education, counseling, study-skills programming, student employment and financial aid, and orientation programming (Bannier, 2006 & Williamson, 1944). The present-day cohort of student veterans has a number of specific and unique hurdles because of the nature of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, including many diagnoses of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and some re-learning how to live with a physical disability incurred during combat. In addition, they are negotiating the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life, a struggle common to most veterans. Programming that helps address these needs as well as educates various campus constituencies about the specifics of the student veteran population will be imperative in the coming years. My understanding of the issues that affect this specific population grew exponentially because of my deep investigation into the historical context of student veteran services. If you would like to see more in-depth research on student veterans, you can access my research paper, “Supporting Student-Veterans Since the GI Bill.”
In addition to my work in AHE 548, I was able to get a more full sense of the history of student services in AHE 551: Programs & Functions, of academic advising in AHE 599: Academic Advising, and of disability access services in AHE 599: Disability Issues. Each of these courses began by asking us to read about historical contexts because they can help explain the state of current affairs. I believe that without a comprehension and respect for history, it is difficult to make a reasonable choice for a direction to take in the future. By understanding the context out of which student affairs, academic advising, and disability access services were created, I can get a more complex and comprehensive picture of the reasons behind the fluctuation of ideas, the needs and desires of various constituencies and stakeholders, and reasons for the emergence of current trends.
In a more practical sense, my experience as a Graduate Assistant in Career Services showed me how context can be incredibly valuable in a particular department. The various services and events offered by Career Services at Oregon State University in the past impact the way that staff, faculty, and students view a particular department in the present. For example, in the past, Career Services was a placement agency, matching students with jobs that suited them. Although this is no longer our role, we still must educate the campus about the nature of what we do, and many assume that the placement agency model is still in effect. Getting the message that we are educators in career development out to students, faculty, and staff has been a huge part of the work we do, with marketing and new programming initiatives.
With this contextual perspective, I feel more able to continue to investigate the origins and history of higher education, individual departments, various functional areas, and specific services so that I can make more informed choices about moving forward. Although I was never a history buff or a fan of studying history, I feel fortunate to have been given this insight; all we do as educators is placed in a specific moment, and understanding context is essential to understanding potential solutions, programs, and initiatives. I have the tools to continue learning and growing in my comprehension of the “historical and philosophical underpinnings” associated with the student experience and student affairs more broadly. Although I know that I will never understand the full history of the departments I work for, I will continue to learn and investigate.