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Building services for military veterans

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Zach Schoonover, pictured with Rock Creek Veterans Resource Center Specialist Elizabeth Bergstad, likes the casual atmosphere of the resource center, where veterans say they feel comfortable.

Photo: Portland Community College

In the Marine Corps, Zach Schoonover served two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq where he helped in the nations’ rebuilding efforts. Recently, he has helped Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon build a respected veterans affairs resource center at his home campus.

As more veterans return home and go back to college, the need to assist them in navigating benefits and acclimating to college life is growing. PCC has about 1,400 students who are military vets—and that number is increasing.

As a result, PCC is establishing the Rock Creek Campus Veterans Resource Center, a one-stop resource center that provides a space dedicated for student veterans to network and relax. The college already has smaller areas to serve veterans. Its veterans services office at the Sylvania Campus has an office to certify student educational benefits, and the Cascade Campus has a small area outside of the library.

The Southeast Center doesn’t have an adequate area to serve vets yet, but there are plans to create full-service veterans resource centers across PCC thanks to input from students like Schoonover and funds from the college’s bond program.

Focusing on awareness

Schoonover said such resource centers can make a huge difference to help his peers acclimate to campus life.

Military veterans ages 35-60 can apply for a limited number of grants to train for jobs in high-growth fields through the federal Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.

“It’s a fantastic place for veterans at Rock Creek to come in,” Schoonover told the state House Veterans' Affairs (VA) Committee in May as part of a presentation with Bert Logan, PCC’s financial aid and veterans services director, and Narce Rodriguez, the Rock Creek campus dean of student development. “They come in, hang out, get information they need, find out where to go to get financial aid on campus, learn how to transfer to four-year universities and get information on other VA benefits. We’ve pretty much set up a support group in there. And, we’ve started branching out and doing community service projects that help people in the county.”

Over the past two years, PCC has amped up the awareness campaign for the needs of veterans. Students and staff organized a Veterans Appreciation Week in the spring across the district that included workshops for veterans, jobs and resource fairs, and guest speakers. In addition, students coordinated service projects, such as fundraisers for Lacey House—Oregon’s first and only privately funded, full-service home for homeless veterans—and deployment care-package drives each term.

“They have a very effective veterans services program,” said state Rep. Brad Witt, who toured the Rock Creek center in May. “It’s a major transition moving from the military back into civilian life and then into school. The camaraderie that’s available through the resource center is very important. Taking that big leap, making that transition, jumping into something that is unknown; it’s easier to make that leap or jump when you are making it with somebody else.”

A place to relax, refocus

The credit for efforts to serve veterans better largely goes to Rodriguez, who identified the need for a staffed VRC after convening a group of concerned faculty four years ago.

“I wanted to ensure that when our veterans came back from war that they were able to have the services they need provided to them at the community college,” Rodriguez said. “It was also a goal of the faculty who were really struggling in the classroom in understanding who the veterans were in class.”

Schoonover is grateful. He earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies of Islam from San Diego State University in 2000 before serving a five-year stint abroad. From 2005-11, he worked as a private military contractor until coming home to enroll at PCC to explore how to set up a small business. The transition was challenging—Schoonover he’d been removed from civilian life for more than a decade and didn’t know many people when he returned. The Rock Creek VRC helped him.

“It is a huge transition coming back to school,” Schoonover said. “The big problem that you face is dealing with a younger generation that doesn’t necessarily have the same perspective as you. The resource center has provided a good place for veterans to come and calm down when they’ve had a difficult time. The nice thing about having it on campus is that you see those individuals day in and day out that are also using the resource center.”

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