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SVRN at SVA NatCon: Day 3 recap!

This recap is coming quite late due to travel and post-conference exhaustion!

I (Logan) spent the day attending a few breakout sessions that seemed relevant to SVRN’s mission.

Session 1: Designing Higher Education Programs to Enhance Career Readiness of Student Veterans

This session was focused on transition from higher ed to careers, but I pulled out some parts that seemed to coincide with transition from undergrad to grad programs and academia.

This slide discussed challenges faced in each phase of transition. I personally identified with having difficulty explaining, or even recognizing, my KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) from my military experience in grad school application essays, and how it translates to making me a good candidate for the program. Also resumes! How to write all that on my resume or CV?? A never ending struggle.

A page from my notes with annotations of the presentation slide show

I also related to having to figure out how to adapt from military culture/norms/values into academic culture/norms/values. One admittedly silly but illustrative example that is still an ongoing problem for me, 15 years after separating, is professional email. How do I address and sign off an email?? In astronomy, the norm is to use everyone’s first name. But what if I’m emailing a faculty I have never met? Do I use their first name (not likely), or address them as Dr Soandso, or what? Do I start with “Hello Dr soandso”, or “Greetings”, or something else? And how do I sign off? I often use “Best” or “Cheers”, but sometimes that doesn’t feel right… I miss the rigid email etiquette of the Navy that was never unclear how to address and sign off your emails. Gimme and “R” or “VR” any day.

Loss of identity was something we talked about a lot in our small group discussion in this session. And it vibes with a finding from the recent American Institute of Physics report on retention of minority groups in physics – that establishing the identity of being a physicist was crucial for retaining that talent pool in the field. It’s something we lost when we left the military, we no longer identified as “Soldier” or “Sailor” or whatever. So what can we align ourselves with now? We talked about local SVAs getting involved in campus wide activities to help foster the identity of student first, veteran second. I did a lot of personal work deciding when I could call myself an “Astronomer”, and decided to once I was heavily involved in research and producing results I was sharing at conferences.

The presenters talked about this as a need for a period of “unlearning”, breaking down the old socialization to the military and building up a new one. For me, having folks of similar culture around via SVA was very helpful in this. It’s also something I envision SVRN being a tool for for transition to graduate programs.

They highlighted that mentoring programs seem to have the most impact in this! This is why I’m keen to get both grads and undergrad students of all kinds of disciplines involved in SVRN, so that hopefully folks at different career stages in the same field can meet and chat and help each other down the career path.

One final idea: the presenter mentioned they had done a “reverse career fair”, student groups host tables and the potential employers circulate and work to convince the students why they should come work there. An interesting idea! They said it had worked very well for them.

Session 2: Enhancing Veteran’s Sense of Belonging in Colleges and Universities

This session presented results of a qualitative study of student veterans and their sense of belonging. Thematically there is some overlap with the last sessions, and tbh I might be confusing some discussions we had between the two! But anyway.

They identified four factors that influenced a diminished sense of belonging:

  • Need for increased peer support as non-traditional aged students
  • Need for differentiated instruction as adult learners
  • Need for campus understanding of knowledge and skills gained through military service
  • Need for additional institutional acknowledgement and inclusion efforts

Factors influencing a sense of belonging:

  • Institutional acknowledgement and inclusion efforts
  • Veteran peer support and established veterans’ programs
  • Engagement with program faculty
  • Perception of higher education as a pathway for continued service

These speak directly to what we want to develop with SVRN I think. We aren’t being paid, we don’t have a non-profit, we started this network because we felt this was a hole in vet education services that needed to be filled, and so it is a pathway for continued service for us and anyone else involved, as we get to pass on what we’ve learned building our academic careers. It is designed to be peer support, we’re supporting each other and learning and growing. And we want to serve as a conduit for faculty to learn about veterans and why they should hire them in their labs and research groups!

Session 3: Managing Your Personal Brand

I don’t have quite as much to say about this one as it didn’t hit me too much. So I’ll share my notes here, and point out a few things I took away from it.

The presenter was Lide Citroen, a professional career counselor who specializes in helping military folks transition to and navigate the civilian workforce. She has many books on the subject if you want more information, shown here.

I’ve done a lot of work as a writing consultant for undergrad and grad students on all kinds of writing, but especially scholarship and internship applications and resumes. Self-promotion is by far one of the hardest things people struggle with, because we’ve all been socialized not to brag. But she is right here, that for these type of applications you *must* brag. You have to present yourself as the perfect person for this internship and that this internship is perfect for you. It’s the game.

I like that she recommended explicitly defining your values and making sure your actions are aligned with them. If I want to be an astronomer, and someone scrolls my twitter feed, do they see me following astronomers and sharing posts about findings and liking astronomy things? (Yes, but also they’ll find silly things too because I am always going to be who I am in all contexts, that’s my value).

One piece of feedback I give on nearly every application essay I read is the need for NARRATIVE. This is not the time to exercise your creative writing, but you do need to tell a story, and that story is of a strong and capable student who is actively pursuing goals and producing results, and will be an asset to your program (or a safe bet for their money if it’s funding). Tell people what to think about you! Explicitly draw connections between things. Tell the narrative arc of you, where you’ve been, what you’re doing now, and where you’re going.

And I liked this, beware your self-talk. It leaks out in your writing. So tell yourself this narrative too.

The end.

So that was all the sessions I went to. There was another general session with closing remarks following, but tbh I went to my room and laid down for a bit and missed!

The conference ended with a military ball (much to Rebecca’s chagrin). There was good food and drinks, and some dancing. I dipped out early and went to the lake bar with some friends, then collapsed in a puddle in my bed. Then hopped on a plane back to Austin TX, then drove from Austin back home to Tucson the next two days. I’m slowly recovering!

Overall this conference was GREAT. We made so many contacts, got so much positive feedback and suggestions on what we’re doing here, met so many fun and great people. I had a great time, and I could not have asked for a better event to get our network out there. Looking forward to the next one.


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