Are safe spaces a “bubble” or a place to debate ideas?

By Maddie Ecker

On college campuses across the country, students have been demanding a safe space to retreat to during situations that they perceive as harmful.

But there is a population on college campuses whose thoughts on the meaning of safe spaces haven’t always been heard: student veterans.

These students have undergone experiences that the normal 18-year-old entering college has yet to encounter. From narrowly missing a suicide bomber to going through months of basic training, student veterans face situations that college-bound individuals will probably never face. So when veterans get to campus, their view of safe spaces can be very different from that of other college students.

American University’s student veteran lounge

American University’s student veteran lounge (Photo: Alejandro Alvarez)

“My biggest issue with safe spaces is that the world isn’t a safe space,” Adriel Arenes, a 25-year-old student veteran at American University (AU), said. “You’re basically making an artificial world where you are okay and that’s not the world, that’s not how life is. It sucks, but it’s true.”

Real life isn’t a bubble

For Greg Schaefer, a 29-year-old student at AU, the fact that there is no one definition for safe spaces is the root of the problem.

“I think that when college students say they want a safe space, they want the ideal little bubble where nothing goes wrong and reality never checks in to ruin your day,” Schaefer said. “Whereas in the military, we have a saying, ‘no plan survives first contact.’ You can want things to be perfect, you can expect everyone around you to act exactly the way you want, but at the end of the day the moment you hit the go button and real life starts happening, it’s not going to go the way you want.”

For some veterans, the idea of running away from a problem is unthinkable. The notion of asking for a safe space instead of being exposed to uncomfortable or challenging viewpoints and topics isn’t part of the military mindset.

“If you want to just be surrounded by people who think the same way as you, you are failing to meet step one of being qualified to come for higher education,” Jim Perkins, a 32-year-old student at Georgetown University (GU), said.

The issue with safe spaces for veterans is less about having them, and more about the intentions behind them. Veterans face and overcome challenges that civilians will never have to encounter. However, these student veterans said being exposed to different perspectives and defending your opinion is vital for preparing for life after college.

Schaefer, who was in the Marine Corps for four and a half years, explained safe spaces as a place to “interact with real things in the world but still kind of have a fallback.”

“Even though I frown upon safe spaces, I’m happy that I have one,” Arenes said. “I just wish that it wasn’t necessary for people to need one.”

A safe space for veterans

Veterans’ definition of a safe space may be a little different from that of some of their college colleagues.

“A safe space for me is a designated area for a certain group of people, where they can gather together and just talk about their problems,” Arenes said. “Not necessarily their problems, but just talk with people that have the same experience or the same background that they do.”

Tyler McManus, a 23-year-old student veteran at George Washington University (GWU), said, “I feel like a safe space is where people can go to without feeling judged.”

Avoiding judgment is just one of the things veterans see students being protected from by having safe spaces.

Kayda Keleher, a 27-year-old student veteran at AU, said her understanding of a safe space is “like a safe haven, an area to go to where those things that were making them uncomfortable are unable to enter.”

“It’s kind of their way to get away,” she said.

Kayda Keleher, a student veteran at AU

Kayda Keleher, a student veteran at AU, addresses safe spaces on college campuses (Photo: Alejandro Alvarez)

Other student veterans who hadn’t heard of safe spaces before worked to find the words to define them.

“I’m not sure I have [a definition],” Manning Kalish, a 33-year-old student veteran at GU, said. “I guess some place where you can kinda let your hair down a little bit and that you’re not worried that anything you say is going to become a soundbite for someone else and isn’t gonna be instantly fodder on social media.”

A comfort or a crutch?

AU and GWU have lounges specifically for veterans. These lounges serve somewhat of the same purpose as a room for a club or organization on campus; it is a space for just that group to spend time with other members.

Arenes, who served in the Marine Corps for four years before starting his college career, sees the lounge as both a benefit and deficit for veterans.

“It’s like a crutch,” Arenes said. “Just the fact that we don’t need to assimilate to the civilian world because we have a veteran community that has our back and is dealing with the same things that we are, so we don’t have to completely transition to, essentially, a safe space for veterans.”’

Schaefer, who originally did not want to be identified as a veteran on campus, said that finally wandering into the veterans lounge had a huge impact on him. “It ended up being really therapeutic for me, kind of like someone who might feel out of place on campus but then finds a club that they really like,” Schaefer said. “I probably wouldn’t still be here at AU if it weren’t for the vets lounge.”

Tyler McManus

Tyler McManus, a student veteran at GWU, says that “anywhere you’re with a veteran is safe.” (Photo: Maddie Ecker)

But not all veterans feel as if a room where they can hang out would be defined as a safe space.

“As veterans we’re trained to defend ourselves and defend the people that we’re with, or the cadre when we’re serving in uniform,” McManus said. “So, for us to call it a safe space just doesn’t feel right. I don’t really consider it a safe space because anywhere you’re with a veteran is safe.”

The real problem

Veterans we interviewed aren’t opposed to safe spaces. They say they are opposed to limiting the speech of others in order to feel comfortable or to avoid confronting different ideas.

“To bring [safe spaces] onto a college campus where academic debate is supposed to be welcomed, that is even more disconcerting because of the fact that there has to be both safe spaces, but places where you can have free thought,” Perkins said. “I mean, that’s what veterans fight for, it’s the first right.”

David Myerson, a 28-year-old student veteran at GWU who was in the Marine Corps for five years, agrees that the free speech they fought to protect is one of the reasons veterans are vocal about safe spaces.

“A lot of veterans take pride in that we’ve been the ones who have guaranteed those rights for everyone,” Myerson said. “So, here’s a population that’s now saying this isn’t the most important thing.”

Perkins acknowledges that veterans returning from combat face a range of issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and need a safe space in order to recover and recuperate with other veterans who are facing similar issues. He stressed that veterans aren’t homogenous and are on both sides of the issue.

Perkins says there are individuals within the military who exude a certain sense of “elitism” over those who claim to need safe spaces. Perkins sees this dynamic as detrimental to advancing the conversation about safe spaces, and how they can help those who legitimately need them.

“I think ultimately, just painting college students as weak or cowardly, I think that it is ultimately detrimental to vets, it’s detrimental to college students, and I think it furthers a civil military gap by critiquing them,” Manning said. “I think that college students should be challenged in their ideas, and I think vet college students need to ask more questions.”