Veterans Develop Speech, Leadership and Conflict Management Skills in the Wilderness

Vets Encounter Icon

By Mike McKissack

Former military members returning to the classroom are getting a unique educational opportunity to study in the Utah wilderness.

The one-week Veterans Wilderness Encounter gives participants the opportunity to build trust and develop skills, learning about leadership, teamwork, conflict management, ecological awareness and personal development, while meeting the speech or contemporary life skills requirement for an Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree.

This year’s group trekked to Needles National Park in Moab, Utah, backpacking for four days followed by two days engaging in a variety of activities, including off-roading, canyoneering and repelling down cliff faces and arches.

“The experience during this trip was very deep,” said COD student and veteran Alex Arnold. “We learned a lot about each other and not only saw a beautiful part of the country, but we were also able to understand each other’s viewpoints on many issues we all face daily. The instructors did a great job of guiding these discussions and we all gained a lot.”

Arnold attended COD briefly five years ago before joining the Marines. He served four years and currently is in the Marine reserves. He returned to COD last spring to pursue an A.A.S. in Fire Science, planning to earn a Bachelor’s degree and eventually work as a firefighter paramedic.

Arnold, a resident of Downers Grove, said he enrolled in the Wilderness Encounter not only for the credit, but the camaraderie.

“First and foremost, my degree required a speech credit so this course lines up perfectly for my degree goals,” he said. “Also, I was interested in getting more involved with the Veteran programs that COD offers and this class has connected me with many students who share the same goals and experiences as me. It’s a really great way for Veterans to get together and learn from each other.”

Arnold said that while reentering civilian life can be stressful, COD provides a great environment for veterans and that he is particularly pleased with his experiences with the Veterans Services office.

“COD is a great place to transition from military to civilian life,” he said. “It’s very easy to find something you enjoy doing here. The College, along with Veteran Services, is very helpful when choosing classes and making a schedule that fits your life. They help you navigate the educational benefits that you earn from your service and ensure you get the most out of your benefits.”

Eli Guevara of Naperville, who served as a U.S. Marine from 2013 to 2017and began attending COD in Spring 2018, said he was thrilled with the Veterans Encounter.

“This experience was amazing. I feel like I gained a new-found confidence in myself as a civilian,” he said. “It was great to meet and share this trip with an amazing group of vets that I now call friends and while this trip was a beautiful experience in regard to the things we did and saw, it was also a great educational opportunity.”

Guevara said the Veterans Wilderness Encounter is something that will benefit him throughout his education and into his future career.

“Our speech professor, Marco Benassi, was committed to us getting as much educational value out of this experience as we would have gotten in a classroom setting,” he said. “I went into this wanting to learn more about small group communication in order to give me better skills for my future career in health care. I know that because of this class, I will not only excel in it, but that I’ll be able to impart what I’ve learned to those that I meet in the future.”

Currently pursuing his A.A.S. in Diagnostic Imaging Radiography, Guevara said he is pleased with the education and opportunities he is receiving at the College.

“COD is a great college and I feel like many students take it for granted. Fortunately, the vets that I’ve met through COD all recognize the high level of quality education provided here,” he said. “Personally, COD is providing me an opportunity to pursue an associate’s degree in something that I am passionate about. Not only that, but COD has an extremely high success rate and hire rate for my desired program. I know that the teachers and staff are committed to providing me the tools to achieve my goals.”

Learn more about Veterans Services at College of DuPage.

Learn more about Field and Experiential Learning at College of DuPage.

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