Two psychologists have designed a class called “Life After War” to help the University of Iowa retain more of its student veterans. Instructor Tamara Woods says the graduation rate for veterans at the U-I is 15 to 23-percent lower than for non-veterans. She says veterans often report feeling hyper-vigilant, after returning from combat. Woods says she’s witnessed the moment when student veterans understand what they’re experiencing is a normal reaction.

“One of the things I did early on in the semester when they walked in I asked them why are you sitting where you’re sitting today? And right away, everyone was acutely aware that they had come in and cleared the room as they said. They said I’m sitting here, back against the wall, I can see the door, I know there are windows behind me, but that’s ok I would much rather face the door,” Woods said, “so even in that situation they’re trying to learn, they’re trying to concentrate, take notes, they’re trying to listen to what I’m saying, integrate that information, but that entire time, they’re very acutely aware of where they are in that room. And that can create a lot of problems.”

Neuro-psychologist Dr. Michael Hall help woods develop the course and says the class helps students understand that combat changes their brains biologically to help them survive. Hall says, “What happens is that when people return back to civilian life, there are still those problems that are going on, those changes that are going on and the brain isn’t essentially rebooting to civilian life. So that’s where we see the hypervigilance persist, the exaggerated startle response, if a noise goes off there’s an exaggerated response.”

Woods says the class builds on skills, like teamwork, that are learned in the military. “We utilize group activities, so group projects that we work on. One of the things we’re doing this semester is looking at the way post-deployment issues are portrayed in the media and we’re having them pair off to work together in a team to do this presentation and address some of the stigma of mental health issues that’s out there,” Woods explained.

There are nine students enrolled this semester, with plans to offer the course by distance learning in a Des Moines classroom this spring. Woods and Hall made their comments on “The Exchange” program on Iowa Public Radio.