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Army veteran Michael Ellis tutors a student in the Lee College Veterans Center.
Photo: Anikka Ayala-Rogers/Lee College
See video at the end of the article.
Twenty-nine-year-old Army veteran Michael Ellis sits at a small table, eyes intently fixed on the student he is tutoring. He watches as his charge maps out the solution to the equation at hand and nods in approval.
Behind him, five student veterans pack the Lee College Veterans Center waiting their turn for help.
“On any given day, I’d say I work with about five to 10 veteran students, plus the five students I’ve been assigned at my job with the TRIO Student Success Center,” said Ellis, who is a pre-engineering major at the Texas college. “It can be hectic, but it’s always rewarding when you feel like you’ve helped someone out.”
Here to stay
The center, which opened a year ago, was piloted under the state-funded College Credit for Heroes program, a $3-million workforce development initiative that seeks to maximize academic credit awarded by institutions of higher education to veterans and military service members. The initial grant the college received under program has ended, but the college decided to continue the center.
“The goals of the Veterans Center are simple: Provide the right kind of information and the right kind of support,” said Ehab Mustafa, a veterans specialist at Lee College.
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Services provided at the center include financial aid counseling, career assessments, tutoring and registration assistance, as well as referrals for healthcare, housing and other benefits.
“We also provide a place where student veterans can study, use computers and decompress between classes,” Mustafa added.
The latter has contributed to a remarkable shift in campus culture, said Ellis, who works part time at the center.
“Lee College has definitely become much more veteran-friendly since the center opened,” he said. “When we first opened, students would stop by, get the information they needed and leave. But now, it’s a campus hot spot.
“Students come here to hang out, do homework, or get tutoring. Occasionally, a student who needs help or directions to a building will stop by, and another student who just happens to be there will volunteer to help out. It’s creating a culture of veterans helping veterans.”
Retaining student veterans
The benefits of this cultural shift can be seen in numbers. Since opening the veterans center, the college has seen a 23-percent increase in student veteran enrollment. Student veteran retention rates have increased 10 percent, completion rates have increased 10 percent, drops have decreased 55 percent, and students are reporting an average 1-percent increase in their grade point averages.
Helping veterans transition to college
Additionally, Mustafa reports, the number of Lee College student veterans applying for and securing employment with area industry is also increasing, good news at a time when unemployment for Gulf War veterans hovers around 12 percent.
“What many people don’t recognize about veterans, is their need to contribute,” Mustafa added. “They like dedicating themselves to a cause, be it to an employer or their community. And when they feel 'at home,' they will work tirelessly for that cause.
“By giving them a home on campus, we’re helping bring them back into civilian life where they will make a difference.”
Ayala-Rogers is the public relations manager at Lee College (Texas).
(Video below) Lee College student and Navy veteran Jose Aguilar discusses his experience with the college’s year-old veterans center.
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