Thursday, October 25, 2012

Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges serving those who serve us

This column appeared October 25 in the East County Herald
By Cindy L. Miles, Ph. D.
Chancellor, Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District
I’d like to tell you about Justin Dile, whose inspiring story echoes that of many of the thousands of active duty and returning veterans attending Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges. Justin served eight years in the Army Reserves, including a 15-month active-duty deployment in Iraq, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb explosion.
Justin Dile
Justin came to Grossmont College to get his life back on track after returning stateside with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He credits the college’s caring professors and veterans support services for helping him shift from combat to the classroom. Justin was a high school dropout before entering the military, but he learned to excel at Grossmont. Last fall he graduated with honors and transferred to the University of San Diego.  But Justin didn’t leave Grossmont behind – he “pays it forward” each week as a part-time assistant in our Veterans Affairs Office.
Since 2008, community colleges across the country have seen a sharp influx of veterans like Justin. This trend is expected to continue as the U.S. military offensive winds down in the Middle East and more troops come home. Grossmont College’s veteran enrollment has doubled in the last four years and is now about 2,000. Cuyamaca College’s student veteran population now nears 800. Since 2009, both colleges have been giving veterans and active duty personnel first-in-line privileges when registering for classes.  
Pledging to better serve veterans
Both of our colleges have made it a priority to welcome veterans, active-duty military members and their dependents. For the last four years, we’ve developed creative approaches—despite massive budget cuts—to give needed services to this growing population of students.
First, we recognize that veterans come to us with distinctive needs. Most returning vets are highly trained adult learners whose military experiences set them apart from typical college students. Some need special counseling to adjust to college and civilian life following the ravages of war, yet their survival mindset that got them through military challenges often inhibits asking for help. Research shows that successful student veterans programs provide a welcoming place that vets can call their own, as well as a single point of contact to coordinate comprehensive veterans support services.
In 2010, Grossmont College converted a 500-square foot space that formerly housed the campus newspaper and a faculty office into an improvised Veterans Resource Center. The cramped quarters can’t keep pace with demands, but it provides access to study space, computers, assistive technologies, academic and counseling, vet-to-vet mentoring, and financial aid assistance. Last semester alone, the center logged more than 3,700 visits.
Cuyamaca College offers veteran-centric services under the umbrella of its VETS (Veterans Education Transition Services) program linking counseling, disabled student services, admissions and registration, and financial aid, through the efforts of a veterans counselor and VA certifying officer as well as student veteran workers. Last year, the college added veterans-only advising hours to provide orientation, assessment and educational planning, and it is opening a veterans resource room this fall.
Both colleges’ veterans support centers are makeshift sites until funding becomes available to build dedicated facilities large enough to accommodate our student veterans’ needs. The district has pledged to create dedicated Veterans Support Centers on both Grossmont and Cuyamaca campuses as part of its $398 million facilities bond proposal on the local November 6 ballot, called Proposition V.
            I’m proud that the efforts by Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges to serve veterans have received national recognition. The colleges are named in the 2013 list of “military friendly” colleges by G.I. Jobs, honoring us among the top 15 percent of colleges, universities, and vocational schools for embracing and supporting student veterans.
I’m proud that we focus our limited resources to make sure that returning vets like Justin Dile access the education and support needed to help them avoid the threat of unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, depression, and suicide that engulfs far too many of our returning service men and women.
Justin told us that our colleges’ efforts to reach out and support veterans make all the difference. “When you feel welcomed and appreciated, it makes you want to work that much harder,” he said.  We owe a great debt to all of the men and women who have served us, and at Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, we are proud to return the favor.