Duty Calls

Institute of Higher Education Policy documentary features Don Richards to represent challenges faced by veterans who return to college

Don Richards didn’t go looking for national notoriety, but when it came calling, he responded like any good soldier would.  He did his duty. Richards, who graduated from State in summer 2014 with a degree in medical laboratory science (MLS), earned a role in a

Richards works with blood samples in a laboratory in the Avera Health and Science Center.

Richards works with blood samples in a laboratory in the Avera Health and Science Center.

documentary film that chronicles the hardships certain people face when trying to get a college education.

The Institute of Higher Education Policy, or IHEP, produced the documentary “Redefining Access for the 21st Century Student” and selected Richards to tell the story of how military members face specific challenges when working toward a degree.

And while he wasn’t looking for attention, Richards embraced the project because he understood the importance of the film and the inspiration he could provide to others.

“I don’t think it was a matter of wanting to be part of this film,” Richards said. “I am not a huge fan of the spotlight. I was asked to convey my story in the hopes that it would help further the cause of understanding students.”

Shot in the homes of its subjects and on college campuses, the documentary focuses on the lives of five people from various parts of the country who are dealing with different educational challenges. Along with Richards’ veteran perspective, a returning nontraditional student, a transfer student, an online learner and a first-generation college student were also profiled.

Richards and the other participants selected had their specific situations in higher education depicted on film. They later traveled to Washington, D.C., for the premiere and to discuss the documentary’s messages with government policymakers.

“With the recent—and much needed—attention to improving college completion, it is tempting to believe that college access is no longer as pressing a problem for today’s students,” said IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper. “Yet, there are high school graduates on community college waiting lists, displaced workers with no local programs to meet their reskilling needs, and working parents unable to balance family needs with their desire for a degree.

“Redefining Access for the 21st Century Student” shares snapshots of some of the struggles today’s students face when accessing our nation’s postsecondary institutions,” Asha Cooper added.

A self-described “Army brat,” Richards calls Jackson, Minnesota, home, but traveled around the world with his family before earning his high school diploma. He joined the military after high school and has been deployed twice, with his third tour to come in summer 2015.

Don Richards and Pat Tille stand next to the South Dakota pillar at the National World War II Memorial when they were in Washington, D.C.

Don Richards and Pat Tille stand next to the South Dakota pillar at the National World War II Memorial when they were in Washington, D.C.

SDSU student retention adviser Christopher Wease sought out Richards to participate in the documentary.

After Wease submitted the referral and contact information, the selection process began. IHEP officials interviewed Richards twice before selecting him to represent the veteran’s perspective in the documentary.

The underlying theme of the documentary was that each student, regardless of their situation, made one critical connection that carried them through to their educational goals. At State, Richards made that connection with Pat Tille, director of the MLS program.
Richards originally applied and was accepted into the MLS program in 2010, but was deployed to Afghanistan.

“I returned in January 2012 and made an unannounced visit to (Tille’s) office sometime in February,” Richards said. “I showed up at her door and she immediately remembered me, gave me a big smile and a ‘hello.’ That action of just remembering who I was after one year of no contact and only meeting twice before really affected me.”

That genuine greeting from Tille was the start of a connection that would ultimately be Richards’ bridge back into higher education.

“I didn’t feel like I had to start a relationship with an instructor from scratch again. To be perfectly honest, it took me by surprise and really eased my anxiety coming into school yet again after a deployment,” Richards said.  “She has been a mentor, guide, and at times, embarrassingly, a shoulder when post-deployment stress was affecting me. It just made sense to bring Dr. Tille (on the trip to D.C.).”

Richards, accompanied by his wife and Tille, arrived on Capitol Hill in December 2013 for the premiere of the IHEP documentary. The four-day, all-expenses-paid trip included the video screening, along with a banquet and meetings with some of the nation’s top policymakers.

The opportunity to see the documentary for the first time and speak with IHEP committee members included a large panel setting as well as smaller breakout groups.

“It was difficult during the large group session to express everything clearly and get good feedback,” Richards said. “The small group meeting, after the panel discussion, was fairly productive. I felt very engaged by a congressional staffer and a representative from the Department of Education. They asked a lot of complex questions that spurred more discussion.”

Just as Richards shared his experiences in higher education from the veteran’s point of view, Tille provided her perspective as a college faculty member who had played a key role in a student’s life.

“Along with other faculty, administrators and key government personnel, we were asked questions about our particular institutions,” Tille said. “At SDSU, we are fortunate to have the new Veterans Resource Center and ROTC programs. I was able to tell about the positive steps that I have seen SDSU take regarding military students.

“On the flip side, I was very much aware of Don’s difficulty navigating the military system for his benefits. I felt helpless most of the time, unable to provide him with any assistance.”

Tille acknowledged that Richards’ situation is both difficult and unique, but added that it isn’t completely unlike the situations of other students.

“Everyone has a story,” Tille said. “The story might be a small kindness or a major event, but for everyone, their ‘story’ is very personal and very real to them. When I began teaching, I made a commitment that if I could only make the difference in one student’s life the way that a faculty member had done for me, then that was success.”

Navigating the levels of higher education is a difficult task for some students. During one panel discussion in Washington, Richards answered a question about what students needed most with a simple response. Richards told the audience that students needed people. “They didn’t need more bureaucracy. Students needed just one person to ensure their success,” he told the panel.

The IHEP documentary’s goal is to share these kinds of ideas with leaders in Washington, but for Tille, it was a reassurance that her approach to teaching does make a difference.

“What impacted me from the trip was this idea that we all get caught up in what we do in higher education, and no matter what that role is—faculty, financial aid, admissions or administration—we have a role in each of the student’s lives and education as they cross our paths,” Tille said. “It is hard when you are really busy to take that extra time out of your day to talk to a student simply to let them say they had a bad exam, or they didn’t do as well as they wanted, or ‘I did so great on that last test.’ But sometimes all it takes is one moment in time to make a lasting change.”

Matt Richardson

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