At WGU, we strive to provide high-quality, high-impact degree pathways to military members and their families. While much attention is given to active duty and veteran service members, we also want to provide ongoing support to military spouses and acknowledge the critically important role they play. This is the third article in a series from Dr. Mamie L. Pack supporting military spouses. Pack has served as Senior Faculty in the WGU School of Education and recently was named Managing Principal of Healthy Learning. In addition, she is an active-duty military spouse, former classroom teacher, and mother of four. For additional resources, please access Dr. Pack’s other feature articles in the Learning Community: “10 Tips for Military Spouses Pursuing Education,” and “Building Belonging for Military Family Students.” In this story, Dr. Pack is joined by her colleague Emily Graham, Senior Social Emotional Learning Analyst at WGU, a licensed, clinical mental health therapist, a mother of five children, and a spouse to an active-duty member of our military.
“As a faculty member teaching and leading military spouses in the School of Education at WGU, I want to go in with the mindset that I am here to support the military spouse – that’s the baseline,” said Dr. Mamie Pack. “To do this, I need to look at what behaviors, what strategies, what resources, and what conversations I can use that will benefit that military spouse student and help them not only excel in their studies, but also to know that they are seen, heard, and valued. Below I am sharing a few strategies to help instructors and mentors support military spouse students.”
At WGU, we prioritize ensuring all students are seen, heard, and valued. "When we serve our military spouse community, we recognize it’s vital we take time to ‘see’ them. Often well-intentioned people, whether neighbors, bosses, or faculty, ask about our spouses, or even our children. But they overlook asking how we are doing,” said Pack. “Acknowledging us as individuals can change our whole day,” said Pack.
“The other challenge with this,” said Pack, “is we are responsible for our households almost all day, every day. We are the parent who is physically present. That means we’re juggling a lot in addition to our schoolwork, and then you layer on the uncertainty of military life.” Pack suggests that check-ins be specific rather than the broad-based, ‘How are you?’ which will likely result in an answer of ‘fine,’ or ‘all good,’ when in fact that student may benefit from some focused support.
Ways that faculty can make the most of the time with the military spouse student is by asking more specific questions like these:
- “How can I help keep you motivated or encouraged today?”
- “Can we work together today to break down these mammoth goals into smaller achievable ones this month?”
- Or given the beneficial flexible scheduling of WGU’s competency-based model, ask “Would more time to complete (x) help?”
“In my previous article: “Ten Tips for Teachers in Uncertain Times,” I talk about the importance of involving students in creating classroom agreements about engagement,” said Pack. Mentors can establish the same kind of agreements early with their students, especially those who are military spouses,” said Pack. This can include:
- Setting up parameters about how hard/often that student wants to be nudged about deadlines.
- Talking openly about where the student thinks they are going to face the largest challenges, whether it’s timing, technology, or curricula.
- Establishing a code word so if a student is particularly stressed about deployment or a matter beyond their control at home, they can use that word without telegraphing their stress to their children who may be listening to the call.
Being an active listener is vital in supporting military spouses. The military lifestyle comes with many unknowns that are beyond their control. Unfortunately, all of these unknowns and unpredictable changes can throw a wrench in study plans. The military spouse student may be fine one day, completing goals according to plan, and then by the following Monday, a lot may have changed. “Because of security concerns and protocols, we can’t discuss details about when our spouses are deploying, where they are going, when they are coming back, etc.,” says Pack. “And these major life-changing events can happen with very little notice.”
“I’d recommend faculty don’t open the conversation with a direct ask to the student about why they are visibly struggling,” said Emily Graham. “This can make the student feel they must defend why they are having a hard time in the course at that moment, and it may be too much to articulate,” she added. “I remember on one of our deployments, just after my husband left, I had a sewer pump break, two of the kids got violently ill, and my husband’s grandmother fell and broke her hip, all in one weekend.” What these experts recommend instead is to simply take the initiative and say things to the student like these statements below:
- “I see that you had some challenges with this one assignment. Let me connect you directly with someone who can help you with that (learning resources, tutor, writing lab, etc.) and get them working with you to move that forward.”
- “Let’s take our time this week (the program mentor and student meet regularly at WGU) and instead have you connected directly with the course instructor on that upcoming task to be sure you’re ready to roll on that.”
Being an active listener can make a difference for a military spouse who may feel alone or who is starting to withdraw. “It’s not uncommon for some military spouses to not have the benefit of community with family and friends nearby to support them. The weight of being a military spouse can all take a toll, and sometimes that toll is quiet and, in the background, but can be enough to cause a student to give up on their dream because they don’t have any time to tend to their own needs,” said Graham. Pack advises mentors and faculty to watch for sudden drops in course engagement or completion of tasks. If they spot this, ignite a conversation with the student that doesn’t ask about deployments but focuses on managing multiple priorities, like these examples:
- “Thank you for sharing with me. Do you want me to help you with setting the next goal or helping you connect to additional resources?”
- “WGU offers flexibility to meet your needs. Let’s try adjusting a few of these tasks and deadlines to get you some extra time, would that help?”
- “Let’s look at what’s coming up in just the next two weeks, see where there’s some flexibility, and prioritize what you’ll want to focus on first so you can get a win.”
- “Our students have access to more than 50 hours a week of dedicated Study Hall. Let me get you a link to try a session so you have the space and grace to have some quiet study time.”
That quiet time in Study Hall affords students a chance to catch up on reading and writing, or ask instructors questions, and still be in a ‘room’ with lots of other students, giving them a sense of community and shared purpose. This may benefit your student academically, as well as emotionally and psychologically if they were feeling isolated.
Another important aspect of listening actively is to ensure the student sets realistic goals for their life and their academic commitment. “In most cases with military spouses,” says Pack, ‘it’s more likely the student will over commit than under commit. You can help them - but stay very positive when you see this. Avoid saying ‘Those goals look unrealistic or unattainable!” Instead say, “I love what a go-getter you are! We’re playing for the long haul here to get you that degree so let’s take those goals you have and prioritize the next step. You don’t need to accomplish everything now. Let’s just keep our focus on the next step you can control.”
While most students will, at some point, express what sounds like exacerbation, it’s important to listen for this with military spouses who may need additional support but do not want to reach out within their military benefits for counseling. Students at WGU have access to a far-reaching and deep web of student support in the Community of Care.
“The student may not be aware of all of the benefits available, including WellConnect for mental wellness counseling and coaching,” said Graham. “I suggest just chatting a bit about the Community of Care, link them to the articles in the Learning Community where they can read in private to learn what is available. Then, make a note to ask them in the next call if they have any questions about the services available that don’t become part of any military record.”
“So much of what these students need is just direction, guidance, and support on the next individual step,” said Pack. “The big picture and the many steps from admission to a degree may be overwhelming,” added Graham. In addition, most military spouses have lives where they prioritize everyone else’s needs before their own, pushing what they need off and to the side. Help hone the focus on near-term goals and celebrate each small victory. “It’s not uncommon for military spouses to feel a sense of guilt when they pursue their education and career goals as so much of the focus is on their loyalty and service to the active-duty spouse, family, military, and country,” said Pack. “Help show them they can actively support their family while also pursuing their dreams. It doesn’t have to be either or. Show them it’s not selfish to want to pursue education and a career, and it is attainable. Share stories of others who have succeeded. Celebrating each small victory is a great way to do that.”
Pack was earning her graduate and doctoral degree while raising her four children with her husband on active duty, often juggling their four deployments and five moves. She had kids in new schools, packing/unpacking, and moving to new places, and new communities to find her way around. And she had homework, research, and the obligations that go with earning graduate and doctoral degrees. She had to get creative. “One thing that saved me was creating ‘Homework Boxes’ for each of my kids. I want to show them the importance of focused time on learning and studies and wanted to build good habits for them even though the youngest was not in school yet. I got boxes for each and decorated them with their favorite colors, stickers, glitter, you name it. Inside each box were age-appropriate learning games, notebook paper, colored pencils, puzzles, and more.
“When I needed quiet time to focus, I would bring my laptop and my homework box to the kitchen table and have each go get theirs. We’d work quietly together for a couple of hours. It can be done!”
Other supportive comments that lead to creative solutions might be:
- “I know life is harder some days than others. Sounds like you are having a tough one today. Would going to text instead of a timed video or phone call for our meetings help you for a week or two to add in flexibility?”
- “Hey how about next week during our call I give the time to you and your (course name) instructor to get you past that current assignment that’s causing you concern or stress?” – and then help schedule the call.
- “Being in a new place is hard, especially with kids. Do you want to talk about how you feel?”
“As an instructor, I feel compelled to note that while this last question may not help with the immediate assignment due, it can be super useful to the student who may just need to vent and has no one nearby to vent to,” said Pack. “To support our students, we must be willing to connect with them first. See them. Hear their lived experience. Give them a safe space to show up. After expressing, they may be better able to focus on their studies. Some of the social supports many of us take for granted may not exist in the military spouse student’s life on any given day, and they may just need a safe space to let off some steam - if and only if, they want to.”
Another creative solution is financial. Make sure your student knows what financial aid is available. Remember to mention that WGU offers considerable financial aid to military spouses in the way of scholarships. Here’s the link to the 2022 Military Spouse Scholarship information.
“In closing, plan to give a lot of grace and be an empathetic leader for your students. Fortunately for students at WGU, the student-centered model is personalized and allows students the flexibility to decide where and when they study and learn during the week,” said Pack. Those who are ready can usually accelerate through their courses, and those who need extra support can slow down. Not all institutions are set up this way. As an example of how to give grace, and how not to, we can look at a recent LinkedIn post from a student (not WGU) who had two very different experiences with professors after letting them know about a death in her family. One replied with that they could extend the assignment and pending exam until the next day. The other replied they could be flexible and move the exam out a week. Then they asked the student if that student wanted to share their favorite memory of the person they had lost.
“The thing to understand is the life of a military spouse has significant stressors and uncertainty,” said Graham. “But it’s certainly not horrible all the time, and we don’t want to be treated as if we are fragile. We do want some grace in case this is one of the times where we simply have no control over what is happening, and we’re trying to regroup at home,” said Graham.