Veteran stories create change on campus

Virginia Stoffel with posters of her photovoice research.

Faculty, staff and students in the College of Health Sciences are working to make UWM a more inclusive, welcoming place for veterans. Associate Professor Virginia Stoffel, PhD, OT, FAOTA, from the Department of Occupational Science and Technology, is continuing this legacy using a research technique called photovoice. Stoffel invites student veterans to use their military experience to empower themselves in the university by using photovoice to share their photographs and stories.

What is photovoice?

Photovoice is a research method that uses community-based participatory research to document and reflect reality. Individuals are asked to take a photo of anything they feel will tell a story about their everyday lives. 

Participants become co-researchers and they use the photos to ask each other questions to gain insight into their lives. The responses help the community to better engage in critical dialogue around the problems and opportunities it faces. 

The combination of photography and storytelling creates an empowering and flexible experience for participants to express their points of view and represent their communities. 

Individual stories for problem solving

Stoffel and graduate student researchers, most recently Caitlin Dobson (’19 MS Occupational Therapy), use photovoice to generate stories from the UWM student veteran community. Student veterans take photos of locations and objects around the university and use a series of questions to understand the significance of the photo. 

One veteran student took a photo of a t-shirt they saw with a military emblem. The veteran student was prompted to look at the photo, and using questions that would lead them from a problem to a solution for campus, the veteran student stated that the emblem made them feel a connection to the person wearing it. 

However, the problem was that they would have felt comfortable approaching the person with the military emblem in a military setting, but did not feel comfortable approaching the student in the context of the university. Therefore, the veteran student suggested that more places and opportunities for veterans to connect with each other should be available.

Other student veterans have talked about using their military experiences as topics for educational presentations to their peers who have not served. Stoffel explains, “The student veterans use their military experiences to reach through the questions being asked of them and search for ways to make the campus community stronger.”

Veteran voices creating universal change

After years of collecting stories, Stoffel is sharing the photos and stories with people and groups who want to learn more about veteran life on campus. One way she presents the research is using interactive presentations. During the presentations, the student veterans’ stories and photos are projected onto a screen and the audience members take turns reading them out loud.

The audience then discusses the photo and story to think about how members of the university can help create community for veterans who are in transition. Such brainstorms benefit the student veterans, as well as faculty, staff and students who are not veterans.

Stoffel explains, “Our ultimate goal is to move the conversation from bettering individual experiences, to how can we universally improve campus for all students?”