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Put Down the Shovel


MIKE:  One thing I used to tell my troops was when you find yourself in a hole, step one is put down the shovel. Stop digging. Don't dig it deeper. So once you do that, and you let somebody know you need help, there's plenty of people willing to help you make sure you're successful.

[Opening Music]

Welcome to Redefine U, a podcast that explores what happens when we’re challenged to change our beliefs, our thoughts or even who we think we are.

When individuals leave the military, they’re faced with the task of redefining themselves as civilians. It can be difficult to navigate this new, often undefined set of expectations and many find it hard to ask for help.

In this episode we’ll talk to two veterans who successfully made the transition from soldier to civilian. Mike Kulikowski, is pursuing three degrees in homeland security. Dr. Phil Terry-Smith, is an assistant dean in AACC’s School of Liberal Arts. We’ll hear their stories, the challenges they experienced and their advice to others on a similar journey.

First, Mike’s story.

MIKE:        My name's Michael Kulikowski. I'm a non-traditional student. When you look that up in the dictionary, it's got my picture. I've been out of high school 30-plus years. We’ll leave it at that. I got laid off from my job as a contractor technical writer back in 2015 and told my wife I was going to take a year off. At the end of the year, I started looking at jobs. I was like, I really don't like this. Then, out of the blue, VA called me and said we'll send you back to school …

DAN:         Huh. So how long have you been a student?

MIKE:        I came to school August of 2016 and I've been three-quarter time most of that time. About a semester and a half ago I figured out if I take a couple extra classes, I can graduate in December of this year with all three of the homeland securities' degrees at the same time.

VA was sending me for one called Intelligence Analytics. There's another one, Border and Transportation Security and the other one's Management.

DAN:         So how long were you in the military?

MIKE:        I was in active duty for four years and then I did 11 years' reserves down in Fort Meade.

DAN:         What was the transition like from military to civilian?

MIKE:        When I came off of active duty and went into the reserves, I had to find a full-time job. So at first it wasn't the best of jobs. I wouldn't say minimum wage but they were pretty close.

Through the military I would contact other people and they would say, hey, maybe you want to try working here. And it took probably eight or ten years into my eleven before I ran into somebody that said, hey, I got an idea for a job for you and that's how I got into contracting which I worked at for about 12 or 15 years.

DAN:         So having had that experience, and that life experience as well, what was it like coming back to school?

MIKE:        It was difficult for me because as I said I was out of school 30-plus years. I was unsure, not afraid, but just unsure of what was going to happen. I went to a well-known high school in Baltimore which is a college prep school and I got one A in four years. So …

DAN:         How are you doing here?

MIKE:        I'm 4.0.

DAN:         Nice.

MIKE:        I have 59 credits completed. Or no, 89 credits completed.

DAN:         Coming back to school, it feels like there was some risk. Did it feel like there was some risk involved?

MIKE:        Well, the first, like I said, there was some apprehension. I thought I'm not sure I can do this. I always joke around and say I'm getting older and I can't remember things as well and I can't learn as easy. But that's not true. It's just a matter of applying yourself. The risk to me was if I didn't do well, would I look back and say yeah, I just wasted four months doing that.

DAN:         Tell me a little bit about what you encountered. What are some of the challenges that military veterans face coming back to school?

MIKE:        Well the one thing, and I’ve said this — I use this as part of my talk when I'm in the vet center — not myself but some of the other non-traditional students, meaning they're in their 20s or late 20s. Before they go in the military, they're kids. They finish high school. They're living at home with mom for the summer. Then all of a sudden they decide to go in the military. So they jump in the military, go through basic training. From there on, for the next four, six, maybe even eight years, they're told what to do, when to do it.

Then they go ahead and say I'm going to go back and be a civilian and I got this college money, I'm going to school. So the military throws them out the door, says, go ahead and sign up for school. We'll pay for your school, pay for you to go to school, give you a little extra money that you can live off of so you don't have to worry about it. But they don't tell them how to use that money so they've never been an adult, so they don't have any direction. About three weeks into each month they're like, yeah, I got my money but I had to pay my rent, had to pay my car, had to pay my insurance, oh yeah, I'm out of food. So sometimes we can help them with other areas. There's a food pantry on school and we have one that we also run out of the vet center because military don't like to go asking for help. Although they will ask somebody that's more like them.

Mike outlined some of the difficulties veterans experience when they leave the military: finding a job, living in a less-structured world, going back to school as a non-traditional student. These are big challenges. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and find yourself at the bottom of a hole. When that happens, Mike says it’s hard for many service members to ask for help.

Dr. Phil Terry-Smith is both veteran and academic. He’s a sociologist and fascinated by how people interact. Let’s talk to Dr. Phil. and hear his thoughts on how veterans, active service members — all of us really — can reconnect with the civilian world.

DAN:         Can I call you Dr. Phil?

PHIL:         You can. The better looking one.

DAN:         Do your students call you that?

PHIL:         They do.

DAN:         I love that. That's great. So, how long have you been at AACC?

PHIL:         So, I started here in '92 as an adjunct, and then took a brief respite while I did some work with the American Red Cross in the early 2000s. Then came back on board somewhere around 2010 I believe.

DAN:         What do you primarily teach or what have you been teaching over the years?

PHIL:         Primary subject is sociology: introduction to sociology, social problems, criminal justice, criminology, deviance.

DAN:         You've shared with me that you've been in some form of a uniform for much of your life.

PHIL:         Yeah, so I literally have been in uniform since I was a kid, right? It started from scouts and into Junior ROTC. Did a stint with the US Army Reserve, six years as a medic in the Reserves, and then started working with Red Cross. I'm currently one of the military officers with the Maryland Defense Force, which is a part of the Maryland military department.

DAN:         Regardless of the branch, the military instills a philosophy. So when someone's coming out of the military, transitioning out, what kind of challenges do you think they face most?

PHIL:         Wow. I think the biggest challenge is just adjusting to a civilian world. In the military, Reveille goes off at 6:30. We're up and out of bed and we're doing our morning routine. It's fairly regimented. There's obviously folks that give direction and tell you what to do.

So, there's a lot more independence and simple things like, "Well, what do I wear today?" Right? I don't have to worry about that when I'm on military duty, I pick out the green uniform. It's kind of simple. You go to your closet and I go, "Which one am I going to wear today? The one that doesn't smell too bad." And you go about your business.

DAN:         What do you think is the biggest hurdle they would face in trying to redefine?

PHIL:         Who am I outside of my uniform? You know, what is it like to be in this space in this time where I don't have quite as much regimentation. Where some of the skillset that I built, while it translates, it doesn't quite fit. Particularly in a setting like this, our military veterans have had a wealth of experiences far and beyond much of what any of us in the civilian world and certainly within a college setting would have had, and integrating those experiences — sometimes traumatic experiences — but integrating those experiences and having others see the value in those experiences in a college setting.

DAN:         You mentioned skills and experiences, maybe even values that students would bring to their college experience. What are some of those that they bring that can help them be successful?

PHIL:         Well, stick-to-itness. You don't give up, right? You'll accomplish the mission. And you take a sense of pride and ownership in your success.

So if I'm a military student and I'm not doing particularly well in a course, that's going to hit me a little bit harder than it would a student that perhaps is matriculating right out of high school. Because I'm used to being successful. You know, there's no choice in that. You have to accomplish the mission.

DAN:         There's clear markers for that.

PHIL:         There are absolutely clear markers. You're here, you're here, right? There's a marker on the map, if you will. And including career progression. You know when you're going from this rank to this rank and what's expected of you. We don't always have those same clear demarcations in an academic setting. I'm not sure that as faculty we always take into consideration the different mindset and experiences that a military student would bring in. They may require a different level of guidance and instruction, not because they can't, but just because to help shape that mindset, to make that transition from, "My sergeant told me this is what needs to happen or my commander said this is what needs to happen. What are you looking for?" And we don't always give that clear cut instruction.

DAN:         When it comes to transitions and transformations, what does the military experience teach a person about that?

PHIL:         Everything's going to change.  Even though there was routine and regimen, the circumstances shift, particularly for those members that are coming back from combat, and we need to be mindful that most of our service members today have been in a combat setting for, for many, their entire career. Which is the first time we've had that in our nation, right? And it's a completely different mindset than perhaps more of a garrison setting. Garrison is not combat setting. So being mindful of making those adjustments to lifestyle, to personal expectations, to relaxing, to letting the guard down a little bit and enjoying the experience and not feel that you're forcing or pushing yourself into it.

DAN:         In many ways what you're describing is they're accustomed to constant change and transformation. So that experience and skillset they can bring with them as they go through their transition out of military.

PHIL:         Absolutely. Absolutely. And for those of us that are working with students, particularly veteran students, helping them make that transition and see the value, quite frankly, in that skillset that they bring in. Then exploit that value to teach others. You know, how do you move through change? How do you allow yourself to alter your perception a little bit? You know, look at this from a different angle, and how do you build on the strengths that you bring to the table?

DAN:         And this can extend to the rest of the family, the dependents. We were a military family, so you're moving every two or three years, so you have to adapt as a family.

PHIL:         Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

DAN:         What about social sciences and philosophy? What do those disciplines teach us about transformation?

PHIL:         Wow. So let's talk about sociology, my favorite subject, for a moment. And understanding how individuals fit within their communities, fit within their society, fit within larger groups, and how those groups influence us and how we influence those groups and how there are patterns. We can look at and observe the patterns on how people interact, how societies interact, how individuals, organizations interact, and see where we fit into those patterns and where those patterns are comfortable for us. We're creatures of habits, all of us. And so breaking those patterns and breaking those habits to, I'll use the term that you started off with, to redefine ourselves, to move to a different place. By seeing that I'm stuck perhaps in a pattern and I would be better off if I shift that pattern, if I try a different strategy.

Philosophy, on the other hand, helps us think critically. It helps us look at things and look at circumstances and have a critical eye, a critical analysis of it. Not just seeing things for face value and understanding where our values come from and where our morals and source of understanding come from and how that shapes our interactions with others.

DAN:         Strikes me either or both subjects could be good topics for someone coming out of the military to kind of readjust to civilian life. How are we socialized in one way? What are the values that I'm bringing?

PHIL:         Yeah, absolutely. You know, just doing a quick value assessment of who I am and why I think the way I do and what shapes my perspective on the world. You know, that has been, I won't say tainted, but it's influenced by our experiences in the world. Our experiences in combat, our experiences in military unit.

DAN:         Obviously you were called to serve, still are called to serve. What drew you to military service?

PHIL:   Wow. Service for me is kind of a hallmark, that we do better as individuals who do better as a society when we share and when we give away what we have. So I'm very conscious of the fact that every step and every opportunity in my life has come as a result of an influence from someone else. I have lots of role models that have shaped my life and given me direction and given me inspiration. So that notion of giving back and gratitude for what we have and the privileges that we have has been an important milestone and marker for me.

DAN:         You mentioned role models.

PHIL:         Yeah.

DAN:         So those were some of the role models that you had.

PHIL:         Absolutely. It goes all the way back, frankly to the custodian in my elementary school.

DAN:         Really?

PHIL:         Back in elementary school, you know, he was the only African American male in the building. So he saw that I was struggling, and between him and the principal, they would let me go down and I learned how to run the lights and the sound. He took an interest in me and saw that I had an interest in these types of things and kind of sparked that. Same thing happened when I got to high school. One of the vice principals who I was a frequent visitor to his office saw that there was a leadership role there and kind of said, "Hey, maybe you ought to go into the ROTC program." The ROTC program was just starting at Meade. And so those types of folks, folks that I could look to as, and this is strict sociology, right? What is my reference group? Who do I look to to help me understand and help me shape the view and image of myself? What is it about these people that I can aspire to?

So those role models, those individuals who kind of sparked an interest or took an interest and saw a spark me are quite frankly the folks that motivated me to do all the things I've done.

DAN:         You were very fortunate that they found you. Sometimes we have to find them. What does it take for someone to say, "I don't have a role model right now. I need to go find one." How do they do that?

PHIL:         Follow your passion. What is it that excites you? What is it that you're interested in? If you're interested in art or you're interested in music or philosophy or you read a poem and it excited you, or you saw this writing, or you walked through the woods and you looked down, it's like, "Wow, I wonder why that's happening." Whatever that is, and all of us have it. There isn't a human alive that doesn't have some spark or interests. Find that spark and chase that passion, and if going to school or finding a program or a mentor that also has that interest is the way to move you to the next level, then do that. But find that passion and ignite that passion.

For me, I'm fascinated by how we interact. That's why I'm a sociologist, and how these systems come together and how they influence each other and how we then connect with that or disconnect. I think part of our challenge as a society is folks are disconnected from those things. So how do we reconnect or stay connected?

Let's go back to my discussion about veterans. You know, how do veterans reconnect, to the civilian world, a world where you don't have to be as vigilant and as on guard?

DAN:         In your experience, it was following that curiosity. In the military, we talked earlier about there are certain markers and a clear path is laid out for you. What challenges did you find or what risks did it take for you to just say, "I'm just going to follow my passion, my curiosity?"

PHIL:         Yeah. Wow. That's a great question. Let me think about that one for a moment. I think because my life has been sort of these parallel paths, that was a little bit easier, right? I've always had a foot in civilian, a foot in academia, a foot in helping professions, a foot in the military. So that transition was a bit easier for me. I think even those folks that have been in the regimented military environment have a passion. Often it's a passion for service. That sometimes led down the path that one would have taken in terms of their military career. Leadership obviously pops up to the forefront for many folks in the military.

Even then, there's something that keeps us going. That's that spark I'm talking about. So even in the military, even in that regimented world, there's something that excites you, something that keeps you going. There's a reason why you serve. For some it may have been a quick way out of the house. For others it would've been to pay for college. For others it's a true desire, the patriotic passion of wanting to give back to their country and defend their country. But there is a spark in there as well.

DAN:         How much of these experiences do you share with your students?

PHIL:         All of them.

DAN:         What kind of reactions do you get?

 PHIL:        They look at me like, well, first of all, like “Wow” or "What's wrong with you?" But just as I'm talking with you, I like sharing those experiences because I know that there's at least one or two students sitting in that room that need to hear, "Chase your passion, don't stop learning. You can do this." Right? And those types of messages that we don't get reinforced always in our society, certainly in our homes, right?

I want to share that with students. That's how I got to where I am. That's how I've gotten to experience some amazing things in my lifetime is because someone said that to me. Chase your passion. You can do it. Follow your dreams.

DAN:         Also hearing other things, such as "If you feel called to serve." Or, "There are many ways to serve. You can do that."

PHIL:   Absolutely.

DAN:         And you can always keep learning and redefining.

PHIL:         And always learning, always learning. The moment that we stop learning is the moment that we become sedentary and we don't grow, right? So keep learning. Keep your eye on something different. There's always a different angle to whatever it is we're looking at.

If you're sitting in a different space in the theater, you're going to experience that performance in a different way. So take life that way. You know, just change your angle a little bit, and you're going to see a completely different experience.

Dr. Phil’s favorite subject, sociology, explains how we look to those around us — our reference group — for those who can support and inspire. These are the people we can turn to when we’re ready to put down our shovel and ask for help. For Dr. Phil, it was these role models who motivated him to success. They gave him the powerful message to chase his passion and never stop learning.

Thirty years out of high school, Mike came to college with the end goal of earning a degree and landing a better job. As a vet and nontraditional student, he was anxious about taking classes. He found support at the Military and Veteran Resource Center and something unexpected: his own capacity to help.

DAN:         So you also work at the Military and Veterans' Resource Center.

MIKE:        Correct.

DAN:         How did you end up doing that?

MIKE:        When I first showed up here I went to the information desk and said, hey, I'm a vet, I'm coming here to school. I don't even know where to start to apply and this young lady says I think there's a vet center in the library. You might want to check with that and I went over there and I ran into a young lady — she's now a UMUC student — and she helped alleviate some of those feelings about being unsure about coming back to class. I started in August 2016, but the summer prior to that I probably went to the vet center two or three times a week just to hang out with people.

DAN:         How has your experience helped you help veterans in the resource center?

MIKE:        Jokingly in the military if you move up in the enlisted ranks and you end up being in charge of a group of people, they call you something like a platoon daddy. So you're used to being like a father figure or an uncle figure or at least a more experienced person to help the younger folks navigate life. So, even though I've been retired over 20 years from the military, coming back to school and running into the kids and anybody younger than me is a kid, and they say, hey, how do I do this, I snap right back into military mood and I'm like, okay, you do this, this and this and if that doesn't work you try that. Come back to me if you get lost.

The best thing you can do is just once you find yourself on campus, look around, see what's going on, figure out the whole landscape and then start finding people either like yourself or like someone you want to become. And as I tell most of the people that visit the vet center, don't be afraid to talk with your instructors. If you find yourself falling behind, reach out to your instructor proactively. Don't wait for them to say, hey, I notice your grade's slipping. So …

DAN:         What about for yourself? Have there been helpers along your journey over time, people that have helped you along the way?

MIKE:        Oh, absolutely.  Most of the time it was the senior enlisted when I was in the military. If it wasn't military, if it was civilian, especially in my contractor job, I knew a lot of former military. If I had an issue, I would go to someone who was older or more experienced and say, here's my situation and they would say, “Oh, heck, that's easy to fix.” I still ask for help all the time, but in the vet center the kids end up coming to me saying, “hey, you've done this before, right, or if you haven't done this before can you help me figure out how to do it.”

DAN:         So there's greater comfort level as you said in that environment that they're willing to ask for help, otherwise, they're not real comfortable doing that?

MIKE:        Absolutely. I know we have advisors on campus. I'm not an advisor. I'm a sharer of life experiences. When someone comes in the library and they're told there's a vet center, as soon as they walk through the door they feel like they're back in the military, even though we don't have a rank structure, we don't have any of the typical things of a military. It's more like a USO at an airport.

DAN:         What has your military experience taught you about transformation or about redefining ourselves?

MIKE:        I would have to say the big thing about that is you can do anything you really want to do once you apply yourself. You may not be the best at whatever you try to do, but you can still do whatever you want to do. And then you said along with the transformation. You don't ever have to do it by yourself. You always can find a support group or mentors or, if you can build a mentor-protégé relationship with someone, that's always a good thing because they're now looking out for you and then it also works the other way, that you can become the mentor and pick somebody up and show them because that gives you a good sense of pride when they go to graduation before you do and you're like, good job.

DAN:         How have your experiences changed your own self-perception?

MIKE:        As far as my self-perception, I don't see a lot of change other than, I feel more charitable than I ever thought I would. I was always, you know, a survival of the fittest type guy other than when I was required to be otherwise. And then starting to work with the vets, I was like, these guys need help. I’ve put that requirement on myself now. It’s actually enjoyable. When I go home after working in the vet center I'm like, yeah, that was a good day.

It can be so hard to ask for help. Many of us, including service members and veterans, struggle in silence. By doing so, we dig ourselves into a hole. Sometimes we can pull ourselves out. Sometimes, we need to put down the shovel and call for support.

One way to find our helpers is to pursue our passions — be it service, sociology or podcasting. Finding and doing what we love connects us with others who share our interests and a piece of our story. And it’s these people who can remind us that we can do it. We can become whoever/whatever we want to be. We have the power to redefine ourselves.

So, go. Chase your passion. Follow your dreams.


Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College.
Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch
Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard
Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan, and Ben Pierce.

Special thanks to Mike Kulikowski and Dr. Phil the-better-looking-one Terry-Smith.

Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website:

I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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