Helping Veterans Transition to College

It is getting late in the day, and Tyrone Jenkins doesn’t have much time to spare. He’s been having problems with one of his tires, and he needs to get to a repair shop to get it checked out.

But at this moment the Marine Corps veteran is in academic advisor Jay Sommer’s office at the Veterans Resource Center at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth discussing the classes he needs to take for his Associate in Arts degree. His goal is to become a law enforcement officer. When he walks out of Sommer’s office, he takes a seat at one of the two computer stations and logs in to register online for his classes.

Alex Spigarelli, a student assistant who also is a Marine Corps veteran, walks over to the computer to help Jenkins register and locate information.

In less than an hour, Jenkins is leaving the three-office center, passing a waiting area stocked with brochures on various services and events for veterans.

“I’m satisfied,’’ Jenkins says with a wide grin while checking his watch. “These guys go above and beyond helping you out. You don’t really feel that you’re by yourself. I grade them 10 out of 10; they do things without you asking them.”

The Veterans Resource Center was established at the Lake Worth campus in 2009 to provide a one-stop shop for veterans like Jenkins returning to school. Through this center, which moved into a larger space last year, veterans are certified for their U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits, and they receive one-on-one academic advising and referrals to other areas of the College and outside agencies. They also can apply for other forms of financial aid.

“We’ve always had the resources in place, but we’ve never had them in one place where the veterans could come,’’ said Mary Ellen Amason, a financial aid advisor designated as the campus VA benefits certifying official. “The students can come in and sit and talk to any one of us. We have an open door.”

“The concept has been well received,” Sommer said. “Our veterans like the fact that they have a central place that they can go to.”

“I think our system is far better than most schools,’’ said Spigarelli, who served four years in the Marine Corps including a three-month tour in Iraq. “We can do the whole process of getting them admitted to college and getting their benefits activated.”

The Veterans Resource Center is one of several steps the College has taken over the last three years to prepare for and help the wave of veterans expected to enter colleges and universities nationwide under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill (Chapter 33). The bill, which became effective Aug. 1, 2009, provides increased benefits for veterans who served on or after Sept. 10, 2001. They include in-state tuition and stipends for housing and books.

Palm Beach State has seen a rise in both the number of veterans and active duty service members using education benefits in the last several years. For example, in fall 2011, 576 students across the College used eligible benefits compared to 303 in fall 2009, said Erin Jordan, Palm Beach State’s student account services manager.

The College hired staff to provide educational outreach to veterans and designated specific staff to work on veterans’ issues. Each campus has a veterans education benefits certifying official.

A Veterans Advisory Board includes College staff, students and representatives from the VA Medical Center, the Vet Center and other workforce and support agencies that serve veterans. The College hosts special events for veterans and has created or enhanced some internal policies and workflow processes to better assist veterans.

Students who have served in the military also have created new clubs or reactivated dormant clubs for veterans. They were instrumental in getting office space for the Veterans Club on the Boca Raton campus, one of three clubs for veterans at the College. There is a Veterans Student Union at the Lake Worth campus and a Student Veterans Club, which is an affiliate of the Student Veterans of America, at the Palm Beach Gardens campus.

“The College definitely has a commitment to doing its best to adequately serve the veterans that are matriculating at Palm Beach State,’’ said Van Williams, director of TRIO and outreach programs and chair of the Veterans Advisory Board.

“Everybody who takes up arms in defense of this country is owed more than just ‘thank you for your service.’ I think they should be given a great deal of deference,’’ added Williams who also is an Army veteran.

Steven Gross, an Army veteran and outgoing president of the Veterans Club at the Boca Raton campus, said he is happy that the campus provost authorized space for the club to establish its own Veterans Resource Center. The center has a computer, and Gross and the club members keep the shelves stocked with materials about the College and services available to veterans.

Gross views the center as a place where veterans can connect, share stories, hold meetings and use the computer to look up information on their benefits. The club has about 25 active members and 60 in an email database, and for the last two years it has participated in the College’s Veterans Day Celebration.

“It’s a place where we can use military lingo. It’s kind of comfortable here where we can help people going from that structured military lifestyle into a civilian lifestyle and the college atmosphere,’’ Gross said. “I’m here to encourage and let them know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gross suffered a service-connected back injury. He’s in school pursuing his A.A. degree using benefits under Chapter 31, which is the vocational rehabilitation and employment program for veterans with service-related disabilities. He plans to transfer to a university to get a bachelor’s degree in information systems with a focus on homeland security. However, while he’s at Palm Beach State he wants to do all that he can to help his fellow veterans.

“It’s been my personal mission to help veterans get the recognition they deserve. They served their country, and it’s time for the country to serve them.”

Dr. Bernadette Russell, Boca Raton campus provost, said she approved the establishment of the center at the request of two veteran students. “I knew ahead of time that we needed to be prepared for the veterans with the war ending and the new G.I. Bill,’’ she said.

Ross Fallacaro, an Iraq war veteran who served in the Air Force from 2000-2004, said the Veterans Resource Center on the Lake Worth campus is a step in the right direction. He enrolled at Palm Beach State College in 2010 after taking some time to get his life back on track. He graduated in the spring with his Associate in Science degree in human services.

“I couldn’t imagine being brand new and having to run all over the place. It was reassuring that I could just go to one place. I think that it would serve as a good model for the other campuses,’’ said Fallacaro, who also has been serving on the College’s Veterans Advisory Board for about a year and works at Faith*Hope*Love*Charity’s First Stop Veterans Resource Center. “Being a veteran and a student, I was able to bring to light a little bit more about what was going on and just bring more ideas to the table.”

The Veterans Advisory Board meets every other month to discuss upcoming events, changes to services available to veterans and information on new services. “We’re bringing resources to the students,’’ Williams said. “The first thing I wanted to do was make sure there is consistency in everything we do. (Veteran students) should be able to get the same level of service regardless of the campus.”

Mara Dean, an Army Reserve veteran who served in Iraq for one year, said that’s why she is working hard to get help for veterans. When she started school at the Palm Beach Gardens campus in August 2011, she realized that there was no club on campus for veterans. So, she went to work to establish the Student Veterans Club and is pushing to get more services on that campus.

“We’re trying to just give them the opportunity to come on campus and have some sense of camaraderie. We’re trying to support one another. It takes a veteran to understand a veteran.”