Oral histories of student veterans at Monmouth University

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By Melissa Ziobro

A few months ago, we asked you to tell us about the work you’re doing. Many of you responded, so for the next few months, we’re going to be publishing reflections, stories, and difficulties faced by fellow oral historians. This week, we bring you another post in this series, focusing on an oral history project from Melissa Ziobro. We encourage you to engage with these posts by leaving comments on here or on social media, or by reaching out directly to the authors. If you’d like to submit your own work, check out the guidelines. Enjoy! –Andrew Shaffer, Oral History Review

“There’s really no excuse for failure, really. You can’t really come up with a reason as to why you didn’t get something done, other than you just didn’t do it. So that’s kind of helped me complete a lot more of my assignments than I probably would have done (before my military service).”

Interview 1: 21 March 2013
USMC, Enlisted, 2005-2010

In the Fall of 2012, I decided to offer to conduct oral history interviews of Monmouth University’s student veterans to donate to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. I hadn’t conducted any oral histories since leaving government service the prior year. I missed the craft, and thought this a truly worthwhile endeavor.

The concept seemed full of potential and I thought it would capture valuable experiences for the greater historical record. I assumed (based on my experience as a civilian historian for the Army) that few, if any, of these men/women had had their stories preserved previously, given that the military’s oral history programs often focus only on senior leaders and not the “boots on the ground.” I thought the program might also help to show the student veterans that the University recognized their unique identity and cared about their military experience. Lastly, a comprehensive analysis of the completed interviews might show the University how better to serve its student veteran population. At the time I devised and first started researching the idea of a student veteran oral history program, I found (to my pleasant surprise) that similar ones existed at several institutions around the country, perhaps most notably in the state of Kentucky university system.

It is one thing for a University like Monmouth to choose to start a program to collect these oral histories, but I’ve found that it is another thing entirely to entice student veterans to sit for an interview. I’d say the Department of History and Anthropology has a good overall working relationship with the Student Veterans Association (SVA), with several of our faculty members regularly attending SVA events. I even won first place in their chili cook-off last year! Oddly enough, although I won a fantastic trophy, my victory didn’t have the vets signing up for interviews in droves.

vets logo

While the Student Veterans Faculty Coordinator and SVA President have both endorsed the oral history program, only a handful of interviews have been conducted to date. I realized at the outset that many student veterans might be reluctant to participate, particularly those who had served recently and didn’t want to re-hash old wounds. I have taken great pains to explain the process and assure the student vets that they don’t have to discuss anything that might make them uncomfortable. I also realized that many simply might not have the time to sit down with me – and that’s fine. I have found participation even lower than expected, though.

I’d love to hear from anyone conducting similar work. In the meantime, I’ll just continue advertising the program at the start and end of each semester to let the student vets know I’m there if ever they want to share and document their experiences.

Discussion Questions:

  • Has anyone considered a student veteran oral history project for their campus and decided against it? Why?
  • How do you advertise your student veteran oral history programs?
  • Do your student veteran oral history interviews focus on just their military service? On just their college career? Or both?
  • Has anyone supervised a seminar course in which students learning oral history interview student veterans? I personally felt this ill-advised, but would love to hear your thoughts.
  • How have you used your student veteran oral histories? Monographs? Campus newspaper articles? Social media? Any reports to the campus administration?

For additional interview excerpts, or more information about the project, visit the Student Veteran Oral History Project at Monmouth University. If you’d like to chime into the discussion, comment below or on the Oral History Review Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Google Plus pages.

Headline image credit: Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ. Photo by Sinead Friel. CC BY 2.0 via sineadfriel Flickr.