Public-relations classes raise awareness about challenges student veterans face.

By:    Date: 07-29-2017

ARTICLE BY LANE STAFFORD

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While it’s well known the transition to civilian life can be a struggle for veterans, many people might be surprised by the number of former service members making this transition on college campuses.

With approximately 1,040 veterans attending classes at The University of Alabama, one in 35 students is a former military member.

Tyler Hohbach, a student veteran and treasurer of the UA Campus Veterans Association, says coming back to school at age 24 was not easy.

Tyler Hohbach [left], a student veteran, talks with Jason Sellars, assistant director of UA’s Veteran and Military Affairs Office. photo by Bryan Hester

“I felt like I had made a mistake coming here without knowing anyone, and had I not already signed a lease and turned in my military paperwork to leave active duty, I might have decided to just stay in the military and continue with online classes,” Hohbach says. “Finally, I got an email about the Campus Veterans Association, and from that day forward my transition was much better from a social perspective. I still struggled with many of the other transitional challenges: adapting to college culture, learning that my priorities didn’t always line up with traditional students’ priorities while in group projects, moving away from military lingo and verbiage and dealing with shortfalls in the GI Bill.”

In 2016, a group of public-relations students realized many people in the University community were not aware of the Campus Veterans Association, the significant size of the population it serves and the resources it provides.

As part of two courses – APR 433 Public Relations Campaigns and MC 495 Capstone Agency Experiential Learning – these students teamed up with the Campus Veterans Association and created the “In the Chair” campaign to draw attention to student veterans and their needs.

Torrie Miers, a member of the campaign team from Milton, Ga., who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations, says the average age of a student veteran is 28. She explains the age gap between a veteran and most college students can make the transition more difficult, especially because many fellow students have no knowledge of what it’s like to be in the military.

“When you’re a civilian, you’re literally and figuratively worlds away from what these men and women experience,” she says. “The campaign bridged the gap that existed between traditional students and student veterans by showing that, while the life experience can greatly differ between these two groups, these men and women are still students on our campus. We should recognize, know and be willing to help them, just as we would with any other student on campus.”

Members of the 2016 UA Bateman team: Torrie Miers, Samantha Vlahos, Christina Coleman, Madalyn Atherton and Megan Wolf

The public-relations students won first place in the 2016 Bateman Case Study Competition, a national contest that challenged college-student teams to raise awareness on campuses and in communities about the struggles student veterans face as well as increase support and networks for these individuals.

The Public Relations Student Society of America received 70 entries for the 2016 Bateman Case Study Competition. Of those submissions, three were chosen as finalists, and students who led those campaigns presented their work to a panel of judges in Chicago in May 2016.

“I loved working on the ‘In the Chair’ campaign because I firmly believe that it impacted our campus community,” says team member Samantha Vlahos, a public-relations major from Monroe, Conn., who graduated in 2016. “We were able to shine a light on an amazing campus organization, the Campus Veterans Association, by reminding our campus that we are all connected in some way to the military.”

The chair served as a campaign theme and a symbol of actions students can take to support peers who are veterans: for example, getting to know the student veteran seated next to them in class and advocating for priority registration so veterans can get seats in classes they need to graduate and receive their GI Bill funds on time. Students also worked to place the empty chair in prominent areas at campus sporting events to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.

UA students, faculty and staff members signed the chair as a way to customize it for the project.

The Bateman team posted photos and videos of student veterans and other campus community members sitting in the chair while explaining how the military has affected their lives. The stories were posted on the campaign website, inthechairua.weebly.com, and social media.

During the month-long campaign, 31 people sat in the chair and shared their stories. CVA membership increased 16 percent, and the number of active members increased 33 percent. Approximately 253 people in UA athletic stadiums pledged their support for prisoners of war and military members missing in action. The campaign Instagram profile received 4,126 likes across 39 posts, and the team’s efforts raised $400 for the Campus Veterans Association.

Vlahos says the group’s project not only helped UA’s student veterans, but also positively impacted Bateman team members.

“Professionally, this campaign took me to the next level,” she says. “I was able to stand out among entry-level candidates because I gained invaluable real-world experience. I touched almost every aspect of public relations with this campaign.”

Christina Coleman, a public-relations major from Westlake, Calif., who graduated in 2016, says she’s thankful for the skills she gained as well. “I learned how to work together with a team of completely different people, to think creatively and outside the box and to organize and implement a campaign,” she says.

Hohbach worked closely with the Bateman Team during the campaign. “Bateman has been absolutely incredible,” he says. “I cannot even describe how much they have helped the Campus Veterans Association.”

Members of the 2016 UA Bateman team present their campaign during the national competition in Chicago.

Teri Henley, faculty advisor for the Bateman Competition Team and instructor of APR 433 Public Relations Campaigns and MC 495 Capstone Agency Experiential Learning, says she is proud of the group’s accomplishments.

“This is a huge national honor,” Henley says of the team’s performance in the competition. “One of the best outcomes is that we plan to continue to partner with CVA through Capstone Agency because the campaign was such a success.” Capstone Agency is the UA-student-run communications firm.

In April 2016, Henley received a $2,000 grant from the UA Center for Community Based Partnerships. Capstone Agency is using this grant, in part, to create printed materials informing the University community about student veterans and the Campus Veterans Association. For Veteran’s Day, the agency sent an infographic about veterans at UA to every faculty and staff mailbox.

Both Coleman and Vlahos attribute the campaign’s achievements to its straightforward yet powerful message.

“I think the In the Chair campaign was successful because it started with a very simple concept: get to know the person sitting next to you,” Coleman says. “This simple statement means so much, though, and can transcend any college campus across the United States.”

APR 433 Public Relations Campaigns gives students the opportunity to plan, execute and present a complete public-relations campaign for a local, regional, national or international client. Working in teams, students apply both theoretical and practical knowledge acquired in their previous coursework. The course is offered in the fall and spring semesters.

MC 495 Capstone Agency Experiential Learning focuses on application of the communications process through real-world experiences with Capstone Agency clients. The Bateman competition team is considered a Capstone Agency client each Spring semester.

For more information about APR 433 or MC 495, contact Teri Henley at henley@apr.ua.edu or 205-348-0365.