Invisible Battle

Some days, boarding a crowded Cy-Ride bus can be too much to bear for Chris Salek. His anxiety can take over, especially if he’s already stressed about giving a presentation or is on his way to an important exam.

On other days, like today, he can make his way to his favorite class without issue.

“I love ‘woodies’. It’s tough, but it’s my favorite class,” says Salek, a senior in horticulture, about the woody plant cultivars course taught by Jeff Iles, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture. “There’s a lot more to golf courses than just turf, and woody plants and trees play a big role.”

An active-duty army veteran, Salek’s hidden disability—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—can make even the simplest tasks, like getting to campus, a major obstacle to earning his degree.

“I think a lot of students take for granted the ability to just get up and go to class. Whether the disability is physical or invisible like mine, a lot of students really struggle,” Salek says.

Salek is one of 2,734 military-affiliated students (those that self-identify as veterans, military personnel and family members) at Iowa State. Jathan Chicoine, director of the Iowa State University Veterans Center, says there has been a 33 percent increase in the veteran student population since the creation of the center in 2012.

“When talking about PTSD, there is an idea we call Post-Traumatic Growth. It’s the idea that when we process through some of those traumatic experiences, we gain something, strength,” says Chicoine. “Chris, like many veterans, is resilient and brings a remarkable strength to our community. Through his experiences, he enriches all those around him.”

Navigating the student experience

Salek, a native of Muscatine, Iowa, was drawn to military service by the G.I. Bill in 1984. In addition to overcoming the effects of PTSD from his days in combat, Salek faces challenges of being an older, non-traditional student.

“Sometimes it can be odd to work in groups with people so much younger, and reaching back thirty-some years to the last time I took a chemistry class is really stressful,” he says. “But, you have to just put yourself out there and ask for help from your younger peers. They can be really helpful, especially with some of the technology I’m not as familiar with.”

He says he does his best to pay extra attention in class, gets to know his professors and uses the tutoring services and peer groups offered through the Iowa State University Veteran Center.

The Veteran Center offers academic coaching, funding for tutoring and connects vets to counseling and disability resources on campus. They also host weekly, home-cooked dinners for veterans and their families and offer trainings and meet-and-greet events for faculty and staff.

Veteran services, support by academic advisers and personal attention from professors are just a few of the elements Salek says help him through the tough semesters.

“We’ve invested a lot in new retention initiatives in recent years,” says Howard Tyler, assistant dean for student services in agriculture and life sciences. “Better training for academic advisers, increasing communications to current students and improving our inside-and outside-the-classroom experiences help students like Chris navigate their unique challenges.”

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has the highest retention rate on campus—90.4 percent. And, the college keeps the largest percentage of retained students as majors in the college—83 percent.

A drive to learn and achieve

Salek retired from the Army in 2008 as a master sergeant with expertise in infantry and logistics. He served several active duty deployments including time in Somalia and Iraq among other locations. He earned an agricultural business associate’s degree at Muscatine Community College, and transferred to Iowa State in 2014.

“I always knew I wanted a bachelor’s degree. I enjoyed my time at MCC and was involved in a lot of things, but I wasn’t done learning yet. I’ll never be done learning,” Salek says.

While at Muscatine Community College, Chris earned first place national honors in the career progress competition at the National Postsecondary Agricultural Student Organization annual conference.

He met his Iowa State academic adviser Barb Clawson while she was at the community college on a recruiting trip.

“Chris’ work ethic, drive and ambition to succeed has pulled him through the barriers put up by his hidden disability. His honesty and sincerity to graduate makes me work harder as an adviser to find assistance for him,” Clawson says. “Chris gets the highest reviews for his diligence on the job. The world is a better place with Chris in it. He will be a top-notch turf manager in the near future.”

His love of the outdoors is what drew Salek to horticulture and his love of sports led him to consider turf management as a career.

Focusing on the details

Salek worked with the Iowa State University Athletic Department turf management crew for two years, and this spring he joined the undergraduate Sports Turf Managers Association Student Challenge team competing at the association’s national annual conference.

As an undergraduate research assistant for Adam Thoms, assistant professor of horticulture, Salek collects data comparing cultivars and maintenance practices of turf at the Iowa State Horticulture Research Station.

“We have this piece of equipment that’s a modified aerator that simulates the traffic of a 300-pound lineman. And, I measure the speed of a golf ball on simulated greens with a Stimpmeter,” Salek says. “I create traffic reports to see how different varieties of turf perform under different stresses.”

Thoms’ research team contributes data to the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, which helps turf managers across the United States make decisions on cultivar selection and how to best manage inputs.

“Chris has been an excellent and dedicated member of our research team. He brings a wealth of real-world experience and life knowledge to our crew. He doesn’t realize it, but often he is giving advice to the students on life challenges they face,” says Thoms. “He also has a great focus on details, which is critical when conducting research.”

Ultimately, Salek plans to graduate and find a position as a golf course superintendent. It will be an important moment for him in completing the bachelor’s he set out to earn when he joined the Army nearly 35 years ago. He may find he turns to his research findings at Iowa State in making turf management decisions at his own course.