Driving a truck after leaving the military wasn’t working too well for Deshawn Townes, so he enrolled in Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) to take some courses. That’s where he heard about Veterans Upward Bound and decided to investigate.
At first he thought it was all about remedial classes, something he didn’t need. After all, he had served four years as an Army specialist on active duty at Fort Bragg and then spent six years in the National Guard — working, as he describes it, “everywhere from Lumberton to Wilmington to Charlotte.”
He had plenty of entries on his Joint Services Transcript, the document listing military training and experience that colleges use to award academic credit. Still, he thought it might be worth a visit, so he stopped by the office.
“Right away, they were very inviting, and it made me feel like I had some place to go,” says Townes. “I got a lot of help and it came to the point where I was visiting them like family, every day. They gave me the support system to get through college and reintegrate myself back into the civilian world.”
Townes quickly discovered that Veterans Upward Bound offered more than he expected. Staff based at CCCC’s Lee main campus helped him explain his transcript to people who didn’t understand what it all meant. They met with him, one-on-one, to sort through degree options. They taught him how to study and make a smooth transition into college, where he was now studying with students who continued straight from high school.
But most of all, they helped Townes discover his passion. He’s now working toward his bachelor of arts degree at Shaw University in Raleigh, pursuing a love of music that sustained him during his deployment.
“I knew I wanted to have this music degree, but they helped me discover that it’s not always about the money,” he says. “It’s about what you love to do. Now, I know that if there’s something you would even do for free, that’s your passion.”
The federal Veterans Upward Bound program is “designed to motivate and assist veterans in the development of academic and other requisite skills necessary for acceptance and success in a program of postsecondary education,” according to the U.S. Education Department.
The formal description continues by listing some of the specifics. The program assists veterans who might need help to succeed in college assess their skills and decide how to improve them. It provides information, mentoring, tutoring and instruction. And the list goes on.
Amanda Parkstone, who serves as CCCC’s interim director for Veterans Upward Bound, describes the program as a one-stop shop for veterans.
“We help veterans see what’s available,” she says. “Honestly, if there’s something they need assistance with or approach us with and we can’t provide it, we know where to refer them.”
Sometimes students aren’t quite ready for college, even with some help, Parkstone says. In those cases, her staff can provide refresher and remedial classes that will prepare them for the rigors of higher education.
No typical student
There are other participants like Townes — twentysomethings not too far removed from military service — but there’s no such thing as a typical student. Parkstone has about 180 students in her active file and describes them as “all over the board” in age, gender and background. If there’s an “average” student, based on the numbers, it would be someone about 51 years older with a few college credits earned many years ago.
Most participating veterans have been discharged for years, and Parkstone says a good proportion of them feel “stuck” in their livelihoods.
“They know they need a career change or want to return to school, but they’re just not sure how to do it,” she explains. “They often have a lot of questions and uncertainty. That’s how they end up contacting us.”
Once they do contact the local office, there’s an application process. Participants must meet military service requirements and either have an income under 150 percent of the federal poverty level or be the first generation in their family to attend college. Those who are admitted to the program qualify for free college courses and the broad range of assistance that falls under the categories of academic skills and motivation.
But even if veterans don’t meet eligibility requirements to qualify, the staff is willing to provide advice as a community resource.
“No matter what veteran walks through the doors,” Parkstone says, “we do what we can to help.”
Path to success
Having access to Veterans Upward Bound is a boon to local veterans. Only 49 programs exist nationwide, and CCCC’s is the only one operating in North Carolina. From its headquarters on the Lee main campus, two full-time and two part-time staffers assist veterans living in the college’s three-county service area as well as nearby counties.
Jaala McGee, a former reservist who served on active duty as a U.S. Army medic in Haiti, is now studying at Wake Technical Community College after discovering Veterans Upward Bound by accident in an unemployment office. She enrolled at the last minute before receiving help expediting paperwork, securing scholarships and even finding Christmas gifts for her children.
The experience has opened opportunities she once thought were beyond her reach.
“I was at a loss and I didn’t know what to do,” McGee says. “I wanted to go to work, but for everything I wanted to do, I needed an education and I didn’t have it. They put me on the right path, so I could achieve my goals. They’re very friendly and eager to help. If there’s a way, they’re going to find it.”
Townes just finished his first semester at Shaw University. When he graduates, he plans to open a music store. The goal: to share his passion and help elevate others’ outlook on life, just as music has lifted his own.
McGee is studying biopharmaceutical technology and angling for a career in the industry, taking advantage of the medical experience she gained during her military service.
With their own initiative and support from Veterans Upward Bound, both are firmly on the path to success.