Every Veteran has stories to tell. They can be funny, horrible, life affirming, secular. But vets can find it difficult to share these stories, to a large extent, because they are personal.
That’s why Susan Derwin created the UC Santa Barbara Student Veterans Writing Workshop, a quarterback opportunity for campus veterans to write and share their experiences.
Now in its 11th year, the workshop hardly took place amid the pandemic and the campus closure, said Derwin, director of UC Santa Barbara. Interdisciplinary Center for Human Sciences (IHC) and professor of comparative literature.
“I had my doubts about whether to teach the writing workshop this year,” she said, “given that teaching was remote, as much of the work of the veterans depends on of building trust as a group. I didn’t know if this could happen with Zoom. But despite my doubts, I went ahead and organized the course, and experience proved me wrong. The distance format hasn’t stopped the veterans from going all out. They have learned to be insightful readers of each other’s work, and they have produced well-written, insightful and often wise writing.
For David Guerrero, a non-traditional student who transferred to UC Santa Barbara in the fall of 2020, attending the workshop was a way to meet other veterans, which he hadn’t been able to do, and bond by sharing their stories.
Marines Infantry Rifleman from 2003 to 2007, he completed two combat tours in Ramadi, Iraq, and served with the Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan. Now 37, he said he was nervous to share his story “because my story came from within”.
“All of my experiences that I wrote about I had deleted and I thought I would never share with anyone, let alone write about it,” Guerrero said.
The workshop was a turning point for him.
“One of the many things I learned from the Veterans Workshop was understanding that my experiences are unique,” he says. “I wrote about an experience I had when I returned home after my first deployment to Iraq. I found myself embarrassed and apologizing for the feelings I had felt at a welcome home event.
“I remember Professor Derwin telling the class that we didn’t need to apologize for the feelings we had after deploying to combat,” he continued. “The combat experiences weren’t normal, so I stopped justifying my feelings and comparing them to what I thought a ‘normal’ civilian would feel. I decided at that point to start opening up and writing as a combat veteran.
Guerrero, a Santa Barbara native who is studying sociology and a minor in applied psychology and educational studies, plans to become a licensed clinical social worker to help veterans. The workshop, he said, affected him more than he expected.
“The veterans writing workshop was an incredible experience,” he said. “I saw tremendous improvement in my writing and it improved my grades in my other classes. Professor Derwin is a great guide and will push you to go where you thought you’d never go. I appreciate Professor Derwin for demanding more of me on every mission. This workshop was therapeutic and allowed me to heal safely by writing about my military experiences.