Assistant Professor, Biology
VJ was one of my first “military” students and I could quickly tell he was eager to be a part of a new community but was struggling to find his stride. He was punctual for class, always smiling, encouraging others, and excited to be a part of the group – sometimes maybe a little too excited. Searching to establish a team, he quickly learned the names of his classmates and jovially greeted them each day. The semester was off to a great start. By the third week, something had changed and VJ’s behavior became disruptive, negatively affecting our classroom atmosphere. He stopped participating in discussions, was constantly distracted by his phone, and rather than taking notes, he began taking photos of the lecture material. One afternoon, he made a noticeable exit in the middle of class. I was frustrated, I thought I was going to have an ally in VJ and now it seemed as though he would be one of my most challenging students. How did things turn so quickly? How was I going to handle this? Later that day I decided to email him to let him know I had noticed a recent change in his behavior and wanted to make sure he was doing alright.
Two days later during a class field trip, VJ dropped back behind the group as we walked along the tour. “I got your email. I’m okay, just going through some rough things adjusting,” he said. We talked about residual challenges from his service, his determination to do well in school and his strategies for class notes (the photos). I thanked him for sharing with me and added, “You know that it’s really important that you set a good example in class, we really look up to you as a leader.” He thought about this for a few minutes as we headed back toward the bus and finally asked, “What did you mean by the class looks up to me as a leader?” I explained to him that he had personal qualities, experiences, and training which primed him with leadership skills that are hard to come by. I also expressed that I was counting on him to be a mentor in our class.
VJ’s behavior changed drastically after our conversation that day and he has risen to the challenge. He keeps track of our class counting heads on field trips and making sure everyone is safe and with the group. In class, VJ is kind, participates and tries his best to be a good student. I really did need VJ to be a leader in our class and he needed me to be a leader too, but he also needed for me to trust him and not give up on him. A few weeks ago, in a class survey, VJ wrote “You’re a great teacher and an even better leader. Don’t change that about yourself.” As I read that I thought about our journey to this point and realized that VJ has taught me much more than I have him. As VJ would say, “never leave a man behind.”