PCC: A Safe Haven for Student-Veterans
For students who have served in the military, transitioning from combat to the classroom can be an uphill battle. Pasadena City College offers a plethora of services, programs, and classes that not only ease veterans into student life, but also arm them with the skills necessary to succeed in life outside of PCC.
With more than 30,000 troops returning to California annually, the number of veterans attending PCC has increased by 20 percent each semester. The influx of new students is expected to increase as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end.
According to Patricia D’Orange-Martin, the coordinator of PCC’s Veterans Resource Center and a veterans counselor, “Many veterans are completely lost on a college campus.” In addition to feeling confused by the myriad of forms, rules, deadlines, and procedures required to attend college, some suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
After serving in the United States Marine Corps for four years, Nathaniel Kemnitz arrived on PCC’s campus this past fall looking for a fresh start. He had tried college two years prior at another institution, but dropped out due to depression and PTSD. In addition, he did not have use of his right arm and was blind in his right eye. “Nobody understood my pain,” he recalled.
His college experience thus far could not be any more different than his first go round. “When I came to PCC a couple months ago, I was amazed with the veteran support. I was welcomed instantly and was no longer alone in my struggle because I found so many other veterans who were battling the same issues.”
PCC is firmly committed to providing support to returning veterans, whose needs are immense and well beyond the scope of traditional educational programs.
Veterans Resource Center: A Safe Haven
One of the most critical services available to student veterans is the Veterans Resource Center (VRC), which provides academic, transfer, and career counseling, as well as referrals to agencies off campus.
“Transitioning from combat to classroom was a little rough in the beginning,” said Li-Ming Liu, an Army veteran who enrolled at PCC summer 2009. “There were many things to take care of: FASFA, admissions, registration, the G.I Bill. Once you start your classes, you have to get your mind right; it’s hard to get your head in a school mentality.”
Liu found the support that he needed at the VRC. From computers to counseling to legal referrals to VA benefits, the tools that Liu needed to succeed in school and in life were at his disposal at the Center.
In addition to assisting student veterans in navigating campus life, the VRC also connects students to services available in the community.
“We get veterans all the time with an array of issues – from transition issues, psychological and health issues, learning difficulties, and benefits problems to homelessness and substance abuse,” D’Orange-Martin said. “You can’t do well in school if you are having panic attacks, are sleeping in your car or on the street, or if your benefits are not coming in and you can’t pay your bills.”
The VRC does everything in its power to assist these students and to help them get back on track academically.
“Students thrive here, unlike on other campuses, because we have their back. We help out when they’re in trouble, refer them to appropriate help, facilitate counseling for them, mediate with other faculty when there are problems, and create an atmosphere that is mutually supportive,” said Harold Martin, PCC adjunct associate professor of psychology and counseling. “The number one determinant of whether a veteran will succeed or fail is whether they have social support, and we try to make sure they have it.”
The Veterans Learning Collaborative, From Outdoor Retreats to “Boots to Books”
PCC developed the Veterans’ Learning Collaborative (VLC) this past fall to help veterans adjust to the challenges of higher education and overcome the physical injuries and lingering anxieties from military service.
“The fundamental mission of the program is to enhance veteran student learning through the development of learning communities that foster academic and social connections,” D’Orange-Martin said.
The program begins with an outdoor retreat, where former service members are given the opportunity to learn about one another and to bond as college students, and not just veterans. “We sleep in tents, go hiking, cook outdoors, get away from civilization,” explains Martin. “It’s very helpful for many veterans to get back to nature. They also enjoy the camaraderie and getting to know one another better by being together 24/7 for a few days.”
Following the retreat, the cohort of students is enrolled in a series of four classes together that are exclusively for veterans. The veterans-only classes include accelerated basic skills English (English 100), Physical Anthropology Introduction to College, and “Boots to Books” (Counseling 12). Each VLC class is led by a faculty member who has been oriented on veterans issues. The VLC faculty team members collaborate in their teaching to provide integrative learning, which helps student veterans see interdisciplinary connections. They work together to make these classes meaningful, challenging,
One of the most popular classes is Martin’s “Boots to Books” transition course. The class examines military transitional issues such as combat grief, substance abuse, self-esteem, “battle mind,” PTSD, and suicide.
“Boots to Books made me feel more comfortable at school, knowing and seeing familiar veteran faces around campus,” Liu said. “It taught very useful skills to use in school, which made the transition much easier.”
Martin, who is a combat infantry veteran, served 20 years with the Army, National Guard, and Reserves. He draws from his own experiences to help teach the course. Apart from dealing with readjustment issues, the class includes multiple assessments, and referrals to the Employment Development Department, as well as other agencies.
“I have had students that applied for jobs or promotions and got them, but told me they wouldn’t have tried if it weren’t for my class,” Martin said. “Students tell me they communicate better with their spouses and significant others because of my class. They seek professional help that they otherwise wouldn’t have sought. They are friendlier and are more successful socially than without the class.”
Veterans Week: Honoring and Recognizing Student Veterans
Veterans Week, which took place on campus from Nov. 7 to 10, honored student veterans and promoted positive relations within the greater PCC community.
Events on campus included an informational fair, where community service providers connected with veterans and their family members; a screening of the movie “Restrepo,” a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley; a brunch to recognize PCC’s faculty, staff, and student veterans; and a special service at the PCC veterans memorial wall.
Former boxing world champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini also participated in Veterans Week by visiting the VRC. Mancini’s movie production company is currently producing a documentary about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans returning home with PTSD and TBI.
Pasadena City College Named a “Military Friendly School”
PCC’s dedication to providing student veterans with a world class education hasn’t gone unnoticed. For the past two years, G.I. Jobs magazine has named PCC a “Military Friendly School.” While this exclusive list recognizes the top 20 percent of colleges, universities, and trade schools that are doing the most to embrace America’s service members and veterans as students, it ranks PC in the top 6 percent. “The Military Friendly Schools list is the go-to resource for prospective student veterans searching for schools that provide the greatest opportunity and overall experience. Nothing is more compelling than actual feedback from current student veterans,” D’Orange-Martin explains.