The American Legion Department of Arkansas recently held its inaugural Legion College, with 31 graduates. Of those graduates, 24 were Legionnaires – including six from the Department of Oklahoma and three from the Department of Missouri – and five Sons of The American Legion members and five Auxiliary members.
“We had a unique combination of a multi-departmental and multi-family Legion College. Which really added a lot to it,” said Department of Arkansas Legion College Dean Patrick “Doc” Phillips. “It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot of interaction. As far as networking went, you couldn’t have provided a better environment for that to happen in.”
The department’s Legion College was held at Post 100 in Rogers March 11-13. Phillips said it was nice to have it in one place, as Post 100 members cooked meals for the students the three days they were there. “Post 100 is a great post, and they just opened the doors for us.” Arkansas Legion College commenced that Friday evening with welcoming remarks from Phillips, Department Commander Kevin Caldwell and National Executive Committeeman Mary Erdman. And a successful Legion College followed.
“I want this college to get the notoriety and understanding that they’re doing good things in Arkansas for the good of the Legion,” Phillips said. “This (Legion College) is part of that success.”
The curriculum presented adhered to department Legion College requirements from National Headquarters along with the needs of posts and districts in Arkansas. This included training on leadership, how to conduct a meeting, membership recruiting, training principles, resolution writing, and the history of The American Legion and the Department of Arkansas.
“Now we have Legionnaires starting to write resolutions and understand the resolution process,” said Michael Westergren, past department commander and current department judge advocate. And the history portion “opened people’s eyes to what we have been and what we can be.”
Other course curriculum included forming an elevator speech. After attending National Legion College in 2017, “training became much more important in my view from a Legionnaire’s standpoint,” said Phillips. “Do you have an elevator speech or what do you have to say (about The American Legion) when you come across a veteran? Those are the things I wanted to make sure we covered in Legion College, and we did.”
All course training materials went home with the students in a personalized binder for them to share and implement at the post and district levels.
“We know we can’t reach everybody in a college classroom, but we can reach the post through these other trained individuals,” Westergren said. “We have taken the curriculum and made it available to the graduates of the class so that they can now pick what they need and teach at a district level or post level. The graduates are now empowered to make a change at the post level, at the district level. And to make sure everybody knows how to use their voice within the organization.”
Vision for a Legion College
The vision for a Legion College in the Department of Arkansas started in 2016 when the department saw the value in training after several members, including Westergren who was then first vice commander, attended Leadership Education and Development training in the Department of Texas. The department created a department-level training program as a result. Westergren has served as chairman of training for the past three years, where he has implemented a standing training budget with the Department Executive Committee (DEC) to ensure that funding will always be there, which included funding to send members to National American Legion College to establish senior instructors for the department-level Legion College he wanted to develop.
In February 2020, members from the Department of Texas came to Arkansas to share their Legion College program for Arkansas to adopt and modify to fit their needs. There were 19 students in attendance, from both departments, “to impress upon our members the value added with an American Legion College, and to develop a new cadre of instructors,” Westergren said, adding, “I think that is one of the strong recommendations that I want to make – don’t reinvent this wheel. Reach out to the departments that have an established college program and attend theirs, and then bring that back to your department. If you have a college, still attend another college to see how they do it so you can think about modifying. We can learn from each other.”
The initial goal was to host a Legion College in 2021 but it was deferred because of the pandemic. “But that didn’t stop us” from pushing forward, Westergren emphasized. He then set a goal that the department would conduct its inaugural Legion College within Caldwell’s year as commander.
Westergren and a few other department members attended training on the subject matter at the Legion’s 2021 national convention in Phoenix, and once they returned home they wrote a resolution to establish an American Legion College program and presented it to the DEC during its Mid-Winter Conference. It was approved, along with a resolution for $1,000 to fund the inaugural Legion College with the intent for the program to be tuition-based funded.
An American Legion College Committee also was established. The committee met virtually every Wednesday for the six months leading up to the week of the college to discuss course curriculum, budget, applicants and more. “It took a lot of time and effort to put this (Legion College) into place,” Westergren said. The committee, many of whom served as course instructors, consisted of Phillips and Westergren, along with the following and their Legion College Committee titles: Director of Curriculum William “Doc” Sheets, Director of Administration Marie Wilbanks, Director of Finance Becky Dillon, Director of Media and Marketing Tony Gordon, Department Commander Kevin Caldwell and Department Adjutant Robert Renner. Other course instructors were National Headquarters staff from the Americanism and Membership divisions who served as subject matter experts.
Students for the inaugural class
To recruit applicants, it was promoted on the department’s website, Facebook page, in the Arkansas Legionnaire newsletter, weekly membership reports to post commanders, and Phillips called every post commander in the northwest area. Members from the departments of Oklahoma and Missouri were invited to attend to learn more about the Legion College program to start their own. Missouri Commander Gary Grigsby attended the training, while Oklahoma Commander Charlie O'Leary was at graduation to present Arkansas Legion College pins and awards to his state Legionnaires in the class, as did Grigsby. Westergren said they want to share their program with other departments like the Department of Texas did with them. Phillips added, “We have a great team here and there is a lot that we can do to help other departments get a Legion College started.”
The Department of Arkansas plans to host its Legion College twice a year in different parts of the state to provide training opportunities to as many members as possible. Then the goal is to establish an advanced Legion College where department graduates can attend for additional training with the possibility of attending National Legion College.
The idea is to identify “leaders that are up and coming who need to be recognized and empowered and given all the tools they need to be an effective leader. And we need effective leaders in our future,” Westergren said.