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As veterans' needs change so do college services

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Doug Bowman (left), director of Vincennes University’s Haas Technical Education Center, demonstrates machining techniques to trainees in VU's new CNC Machinist NOW program. The program is designed to address two key problems in Indiana: High unemployment among veterans and a skills gap in the machining industry.

Photo: Vincennes University 

San Diego Mesa College (SDMC) spent a week honoring its 1,200 student veterans. There was a Mobile Vet Center to provide vets with on-site treatment and resources, a transfer workshop, a job placement workshop and a ceremony with an honor guard. Student vets and their families also got free admission to a Mesa College football game.

SDMC doesn’t just assist its student vets once a year, though. Like most colleges, services are provided year round. As the needs of veterans change, so do the services offered. The college surveys its student veterans and works with the Student Veteran Organization to determine what they need.

“While we’re making plans, we’re always in touch with our students to make sure we’re going down the right path,” said Susan Topham, dean of student development at SDMC.

The college has expanded services to accommodate evening students, and has made adjustments to its mental health services.

“You can set up the most perfect system, but you have to keep in mind that you’re dealing with a unique group that has unique needs,” Topham said.

Build in flexibility

Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC)—which serves nearly 1,900 veterans—also has found that flexibility is key when designing veterans services.

Like SDMC, before instituting any programs, SWIC evaluated its students’ needs. Focus groups were held to find out what services really interested student veterans. Access to their educational benefits ranked high, as did help with transitioning not only to the SWIC campus, but also to a four-year college or university.

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SWIC is working on an Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs pilot project to help veterans translate military experience and training into college credits. Recently, SWIC became a U.S. Department of Veterans Administration (VA) VetSuccess on Campus institution, which means there’s a VA staff counselor on campus to provide students with a direct connection to VA and access to services.

At its Veterans Success Center, students have tapped veteran-to-veteran tutoring. There is also a new student orientation for veterans, professional development workshops for faculty and staff, and a job fair.

“When people hear of the population of veterans and what we’re doing to serve them, their jaws drop,” said SWIC President Georgia Costello.

This year, SWIC was presented with the Spring 2013 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education for its commitment to serving student veterans.

Helping with career objectives

“We have also recognized the need to incorporate job placement skills throughout the student veterans' time at the college,” Costello said.

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The college plans to work with students from the moment they set foot on campus to allow them to determine their career objectives and enroll in an academic program that meets that objective. While much focus is on training veterans for technical careers, there has been anecdotal evidence that many student veterans want to go into the liberal arts, according to Costello.

To better assist student veterans with their career objectives—whatever those might be—SWIC incorporated its Career Activities office with its Veterans Services office. SWIC staff can work to place the students in an appropriate internship and to provide résumé-writing, interviewing and job-seeking skills.

Aiding veterans and industry

In Indiana, the needs of both veterans and industry led to the creation of an accelerated training program. Unemployment among veterans remains high in the state, and the number of skilled machinists is low. Vincennes University (VU), an associate degree-granting institution, and its industry partners acted quickly to design the 16-week CNC Machinist NOW program that trains students—primarily veterans—for employment.

“Veterans make very good employees. They have a lot of self-discipline, are dedicated and work really hard,” said Doug Bowman, director of VU’s Haas Technical Education Center.

Better data needed on student veterans

Ten people are participating in the first class—nine are veterans—and all of them have a guaranteed job with JWS Machine when they complete the program in December. The company pre-interviewed the students before the program began. Students are recruited into the program through Save Our Veterans, Operation: Job Ready Veterans and other veterans' organizations, WorkOne and other one-stop employment centers, and through industry partners.

“The program is an opportunity that is beyond spectacular. It is the light at the end of the tunnel,” said said Kenneth L. Isaacs Jr., an Army veteran with a wife and two children who has been unemployed since March. “Going into training already having the job—and the employer helping you get through the training—you can’t ask for better than that. I thank everyone who put this together.”

Retooling for high-demand careers

Broward College in Florida will begin its new Operation Retool program in January. It is part of Broward’s advanced manufacturing program and offers an accelerated engineering technology support specialist certificate that can be completed in three months. Forty students will join the first cohort.

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The college will pool Operation Retool services with those funded through a Florida TRADE grant, which a group of 12 state and community colleges received to develop and deliver technical training programs for manufacturing careers.

“Manufacturing is not for everybody, but it’s a growth area in Florida,” said E.M. Henn, interim dean of bachelor of applied science programs at Broward.

Expanding services for expanding enrollment

Maryland has a statewide initiative to improve on-campus services for student veterans. In implementing the Maryland Campus Compact for Student Veterans, Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) is adding the Veterans’ Resource Center and reinstating its Veterans’ Student Club, among other things.

BCCC’s student veteran population is growing due in part to the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program run by VA.

The college’s resource center will be a one-stop shop for veterans to access and apply for VA benefits, pursue veterans employment opportunities and college transfer, and connect with veterans service organizations.

“We want to make sure our commitment has the staying power to truly make a difference for veterans,” said Nicholas Laureys, BCCC’s coordinator of veterans affairs.

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