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Engineering as a Pathway to Reintegration: Student Veterans' Transition Experience into Higher Education and Civilian Society

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Understanding the Military Veteran's Human Resource Needs - Transition from Military Service to the Engineering Profession

Tagged Division

Military and Veterans Constituent Committee

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Paper Authors


Jae Hoon Lim University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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Jae Hoon Lim is an Associate Professor of Research Methods at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Dr. Lim’s research explores the intersection of gender, race, and class in STEM education and highlights the dialogical process of identity construction across various groups of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. She has served as a co-PI and qualitative evaluator for two federal grants including a 1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Her research has been published in many scholarly journals including Journal of Educational Psychology, Equity and Excellence in Education, and Race, Ethnicity, and Education. She is a contributing author to several books published by Oxford University Press, University of California Press, and Springer.

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Peter Thomas Tkacik University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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Peter Tkacik is an Associate Professor of mechanical engineering within the motorsports focus area. His largest area of research is in the engagement of military veteran students and early career engineering college students through hands-on learning activities and exciting visual and experiential research programs. Other research activities are related to the details of the visual and experiential programs and relate to race car aerodynamics, vehicle dynamics, color-Schlieren shock and compressible flow imaging, and flows around multiple bodies in tandem.

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Claudia G Interiano University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Stout through the Fulbright Scholarship. Doctoral student in the Counselor Education and Supervision program at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

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Jerry Lynn Dahlberg Jr University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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Jerry Dahlberg is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He received a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering Science in 2014 from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Jerry retired from the Army in 2010 as a Sergeant First Class. Through 21 years of service, he was involved in several combat and peacekeeping tours in the Balkans and Iraq. While on active duty, Jerry held numerous leadership positions to include Team Leader, Squad Leader, Provost Sergeant, Company Operation Sergeant, Platoon Sergeant, and Brigade Battle Staff NCO. He is interested in bluff body aerodynamics as well as propulsion systems for deep space travel. His graduate research focuses on instrumentation and experimental modeling of turbulence around bluff body shapes.

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Caroline Elizabeth Nowell University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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Engineering as a Pathway to Reintegration: Student Veterans’ Transition Experience into Higher Education and Civilian Society

This paper explores the experience of 20 engineering student veterans transitioning from the military to higher education, particularly to the field of engineering. We examined student veterans’ motivation to enroll in an engineering program after military service, their major challenges during the transition, and how they envision the engineering profession as a pathway to civilian reintegration.

Background. The Post 9/11 GI Bill enacted in 2009 was the most rewarding educational benefit to date for military service men and women in the United States (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs , 2008; Vacchi, 2012). With this educational benefit, higher education has become an attractive and feasible option for military retirees to gain a quality professional training and reintegrate into civilian society (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2013). Not surprisingly, several scholars find that college enrollment is a constructive and affirming element in military veterans’ successful integration into civilian society (Mangan, 2009; DiRamio & Jarvis, 2011). However, there is a significant lack of research providing more thorough, concrete understanding about student veterans’ transition to higher education, such as how a specific program in higher education may facilitate their successful reintegration into civilian society.

Methods. Our study is phenomenological research aiming to understand individuals’ interpretations of their life experiences in a specific cultural and social context (Merriam, 2002). All 20 veteran interviewees, 19 Caucasian and one Black male, were engineering students at a large pubic university located in the southeast. All branches of the military were represented in the sample. Data were collected through semi-structured individual and group interviews, which lasted from 45 to 90 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim for member checking and analysis. Data analysis was collaboratively carried out by a research team consisting of two faculty members and three research assistants. Atlas ti, qualitative analysis software, was used for data analysis.

Results: The majority of student veterans identified a clear connection between their prior military assignments and new professional goal, becoming an engineer. Their military work experiences that required technical knowledge and mechanical skills were the basis for their decision to choose the field of engineering. Participants also acknowledged that specific skills and dispositions that they had gained during military years, such as time management, teamwork, and perseverance, contributed to their academic success in the demanding environment of engineering. Furthermore, student veterans expressed a strong desire to remain and/or reemerge as a contributing member of society; engineering was viewed as a profession that helps sustain their pride and altruistic desire.

Conclusions and Significance. This study highlights higher education as a critical vehicle for student veterans to reintegrate into civilian society. In particular, our findings were derived from a specific disciplinary context, engineering, thus illuminating the process of career decision, made by student veterans in the discipline. Findings would provide useful insights and programmatic implications to other institutions that experience a similar influx of student veterans in their engineering programs.

Lim, J. H., & Tkacik, P. T., & Interiano, C. G., & Dahlberg, J. L., & Nowell, C. E. (2016, June), Engineering as a Pathway to Reintegration: Student Veterans' Transition Experience into Higher Education and Civilian Society Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26620

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2016 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015