April 17, 2014  

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Student-Veterans Serve New Mission as Peer Tutors at Camp Shelby

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Zach Pittman

For Cleother Clayborne and Zack Pittman, two student-veterans on The University of Southern Mississippi’s Hattiesburg campus, helping other soldiers navigate college —and, specifically, college writing — is a given.  When an opportunity arose to work with soldiers in an English 101 class offered by the University at Camp Shelby, they were ready to serve.

Southern Miss College of Arts & Letters Dean Steven Moser explains how the new development in the partnership between Camp Shelby and Southern Miss arose: “After the academic deans and the provost attended College Day at Camp Shelby this past summer, it became clear that Southern Miss could provide an important academic and cultural connection to our military families,” said Moser. “Dr. Weisenberg organized a pilot to teach English, math, and psychology in the fall semester as a first step in this collaboration.”

The College of Arts and Letters and the Department of English are supporting the initiative by providing funding for one of the student-veteran peer tutors for English 101.  “The College of Arts & Letters is exploring other courses and programs that would be well-suited to the interests of the Camp Shelby community,” Moser adds. 

In the English 101 course at Camp Shelby, Pittman and Clayborne apply their own experiences in first-year writing, as well as their training as peer tutors, to their work helping soldiers with writing projects. In addition to helping facilitate class discussions and responding to soldiers’ drafts in writing workshops, Pittman and Clayborne offer soldiers practical advice on balancing school with other responsibilities and adjusting to life as a college student.

“As soldiers, we see this as an opportunity to give back and to help other soldiers. When I first came to USM, I was 52 years old, and it was difficult to get back in the habit of school,” says Clayborne, a sophomore political science major and a staff sergeant in the United States Army/National Guard (185th Aviation – Jackson) with 14 years of active duty service. 

“I was intimidated by college,” adds Pittman, a junior criminal justice major from Hattiesburg. “I was a second class petty officer who served on submarines in the Navy, and I enlisted to get as far away from academics as I could.” Pittman is now a cadette in the Golden Eagle Battalion Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

“I want other soldiers to feel how I felt when I discovered that I can write, that I can be successful in college,” Pittman explains.

Ann McNair, the English 101 instructor, taught both Pittman and Clayborne in first-year writing, and with Pittman and Clayborne’s help, McNair established a writing cohort group for student-veterans and military-affiliated students.

“Cleo and Zack are essential to the success of this course: they bridge the gap between university life and military life,” says McNair, an English Department instructor and coordinator of the Expanded Composition Program. “While veterans’ issues in composition is an ongoing research interest and concern of mine, I myself am not a veteran, and I understand that there are experiences and understandings I can’t share with student-veterans. 

“That’s why, as both my research and experience have confirmed, it’s important for civilian faculty to involve student-veterans in their efforts to support the interests and needs of military students.”

Camp Shelby Education Center’s John Junkins reports that the soldiers in English 101 are “very pleased” with the course, adding his appreciation for “the dedicated support of Dr. Denis Wiesenburg, provost, and Dr. Eric Tribunella, chair of the department of English,” and the “strong commitment to soldier support by the teaching staff of USM.”

Both Clayborne and Pittman see the pilot at Camp Shelby as a positive move in the University’s relationship with Camp Shelby and with veterans and military-affiliated students.  “We are giving soldiers a special opportunity to succeed in college, and it’s only right for those of us (veterans) here to give back,” said Clayborne.