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UW-Whitewater composition class is tailored for vets, military people

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Anna Marie Lux
August 31, 2013

WHITEWATER--Nicholas Doucette spent his first year at UW-Whitewater struggling to fit in.

Before college, he served with the Marines from January 2008 to October 2011. During an eight-month combat tour to Afghanistan, Doucette helped clear the streets of roadside bombs in the city of Marjah.

“The classroom is a strange place for nontraditional students these days,” Doucette said. “You walk into almost every class with a room full of students burying their heads in their cellphones in silence.”

One class was different.

Associate Professor Erin Celello tailored Composition 102 especially for veterans, military people and their families.

When Doucette joined Celello's class, he knew he shared common ground with the other students.

“We all knew that we had been through somewhat similar experiences, which made striking up a conversation with the people around us quite effortless,” he said.

Celello taught the course in the spring semester.

This week when classes resume, she is offering an accelerated freshman course in English composition. Again, the class is geared toward military people and their families.

Students will read poetry, short stories and essays with military themes.

“It is optional for them to talk about their personal experiences,” Celello said.

Doucette called his class with Celello “a very comforting environment” and said he never felt pressured to share anything.

“At first when I looked at the syllabus, it just seemed like another English class filled with poems and short stories,” Doucette said.

Eventually, the reading material unearthed emotions he could not find words to express.

“When you have such a close connection to what you are studying, it makes the learning process a whole lot easier," Doucette said.

The special composition class is Celello's idea.

“I told my students on the first day that I want the class to serve as a place for them to connect with other vets and military personnel on campus,” she said. “I think this population, especially returning combat vets, can use as much integration as possible.”

UW-Whitewater has a strong veterans program, Celello said, including a veterans lounge and a week of activities in November to mark Veterans Day.

She has taught at other schools where veterans keep quiet about their backgrounds.

“There is freedom for veterans in a community of their peers, who understand their experiences,” Celello said. “They can express their views in a way they might not be able to in a course with the average freshmen.”

Celello does not have a military background, but she learned a lot about today's veterans as a member of Gov. Jim Doyle's press team.

“Doyle never missed a military funeral,” she said, “I was often with him. I got a glimpse into the sacrifices being made by our military families.”

Later, Celello researched a new book, “Learning to Stay,” about a woman who is grateful her husband returns home from Iraq. Unfortunately, the traumatic brain injury he suffered has turned him into a different person.

Celello relied heavily on blogs of military spouses to make her book authentic.

“My greatest fear was that I would not do justice to the experiences of these families,” Celello said. “Some have reached out to me to say they recognized their stories in the book. I am proud of the fact that the book resonated with the very people it is about.”

In addition to being a teacher and an author, Celello volunteers with the national Veterans Writing Program. She is working with an Iraq war veteran, who served two tours and is writing about his experience.

Celello realizes the military teaches people to write in a much different way than is expected in college.

“The military requires concise and direct communications,” Celello said. “Higher education is all about analytical thinking and coming up with questions and exploring them through writing. For many in the military, it's almost like speaking a foreign language.”

Ryan Lonergan served with the Wisconsin Army National Guard in Iraq for a year and deployed from Janesville.

A junior at UW-Whitewater, he dropped out of his first college English class.

“I knew it would be trouble for me,” he explained.

Later, Lonergan enrolled in Celello's class.

“Erin pushed us,” he said. “But she understood that most of us combat veterans weren't familiar with writing papers or understanding poetry. She understood we are used to acronyms and a couple of curse words every now and then.”

The sociology major felt at home while becoming a better writer.

“For the most part, I sat next to a guy who was in the first invasion of Fallujah,” Lonergan said. “There were three or four combat vets in the room. We were able to feed off of each other's ideas. I didn't realize how much I actually learned until I saw all my work. It was a nice accomplishment.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.



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