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2011 November 14 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Reaching Out

Photo courtesy Anne Arundel Community College

Catherine D. Cornish, left, and U.S. Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Nicole Younger, a student veteran ambassador, are pictured at the Military and Veterans Resource Center at Anne Arundel Community College. The center is designed to help veterans adjust to civilian life.

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Reaching Out
Anne Arundel Enlists Vets To Shape Support Programs
By Paul Bradley

Not long after the Military/Veterans Coordinating Council convened its first meeting on the campus of Anne Arundel Community College about two years ago, the group came to an important decision.

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The college, it was decided, would offer no veterans-only classes, believing it was better to integrate former soldiers, sailors and Marines fully into the larger college community as they adjusted to civilian and academic life.

It was one of several choices the college had to make as it worked to welcome veterans who were coming to the college in record numbers, spurred by the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which virtually eliminated financial constraints for veterans choosing a place to further their education. Last year, there were more than 800,000 GI Bill beneficiaries across the country, an increase of 40 percent over the year before.

Two years after President Obama signed the new GI Bill into law, colleges around the country are devising and refining programs to welcome them back while bracing for a new influx of student veterans. A law which took effect in October greatly expands the reach of the GI Bill; money for tuition, books and housing stipends formerly was good only at colleges and universities. But now the GI Bill covers institutions like vocational and technical schools and colleges that offer licensing and certificate programs – a specialty of community colleges.

For veterans, struggling with high unemployment, the new rules offer another path to job training programs. For community colleges, they present another challenge in determining the needs and wants of veterans and responding to those desires. While the federal government does not require colleges to have veteran coordinators of programs, many colleges are taking the initiative to ease the transition from military to civilian life for student veterans.

“The most important thing is that the college community be aware of the veterans,” said Jean Runyon, dean of Anne Arundel’s Virtual College, which coordinates veterans’ programs at the school. “There needs to be professional development for faculty and staff. And it is essential that we hear the voice of the veteran. They are involved in everything that we do.”

Anne Arundel, located in Maryland not far from Washington, D.C. and the United States Naval Academy, and with a long presence at nearby Fort Meade, is well-recognized for its efforts to welcome veterans. GI Jobs has named the college to its 2011 list of “Military Friendly Schools.”
In addition, the college has been selected as a 2010 Military Advanced Education top military-friendly college. Among its enrollment of 17,000 students are about 700 veterans.

The college offers 49 associate degree programs, 70 credit certificates, 28 letters of recognition and 88 continuing education certificates. Six degrees and more than 20 certificates can be completed completely online.

Cheryl A. Miller, who works as a liaison to implement the recommendations of the veterans coordinating council, said the college strives to aid the veterans while keeping its focus on its academic mission. The group meets every six weeks and includes representatives from across the college. Among the group’s stated goals are increasing learning programs and enrichment opportunities for veterans and their families, ensuring that veterans have full access to academic and support services and creating a climate that smooths the transition to civilian life.

“Our big challenge is to help them readjust,” Miller said. “We can’t do it all. What we try to do is help faculty help them. But we have to focus on what we do. Most of us are not qualified to do anything but teach.”

That’s why outreach to the veterans’ community has been so important, she said. A survey of veterans yielded tangible results. It found that they wanted a place where they could gather on campus, take a study break and get help in navigating the complex GI Bill and other financial aid programs.

Thus was born the Military/Veterans Resource Center, which provides the meeting place, and the Veterans Ambassador Program, which provides incoming veterans a peer point of contact for information and support in transitioning from the military. The Veteran Student Association holds its meetings there.

Catherine D. Cornish is a veteran and work-study student at Anne Arundel and is in charge of the resource center. After six years in the Army, she made her own transition to civilian life and understands well the challenge facing student veterans.

“The gap can be huge,” she said. “In the military, you’re told what to do and how to dress. Everything is provided in the military. In college, you are on your own. You set your own schedule.”

“Here, the students can come in and bond and share their experiences in making the transition.”

Much of her time, and that of the veterans ambassadors, is consumed with explaining the new GI Bill, which together with other benefit programs can be a confounding maze for even experienced hands. Veterans also have plenty of questions about how to best transfer credits. Often, it’s merely a matter of putting the student veteran in touch with the right person.

But each situation is different, Cornish said. Some student veterans are struggling with disabilities or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others are juggling college with the responsibilities of a full-time job and raising a family. Some are weary and frazzled by multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still others are highly self-motivated and need relatively little help.

Sinthi Acey falls into that last category. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she is at Anne Arundel studying prerequisites for pharmacy school, taking a demanding schedule of anatomy, physiology and microbiology. Next year, she will attend the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy.

“I’m pretty driven, and I read up on the GI Bill,” she said. “I don’t know that (veterans) seek each other out, but the veterans center is a place where people can come in an ask questions. I think the college really does go out of its way to help.”

Colleges across Maryland are working together to identify best practices and expand training opportunities for faculty, Miller said. For example, Anne Arundel is currently in the process of designing a workshop, expected to be in place in fall 2012 that will offer training opportunities in a variety of formats – online, face-to-face and hybrid. It’s being designed by a nursing instructor whose son in is the Marines.

“We want to know how we can collaborate,” she said. “We’re a community college, and we care about our community. We have a lot of military here. We really want to help veterans succeed in civilian life.”

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