WASHINGTON — Noting that America’s community colleges provide a gateway to good jobs and a better life for millions of Americans, President Barack Obama this week told one veteran’s story to illustrate his point.
“Derek Blumke spent six years in the Air Force, three deployments in the Afghan theater putting his life at risk to keep this country safe,” Obama said. “When he returned, he started classes at his local community college in northern Michigan.”
Blumke earned an associate’s degree with honors while continuing to serve in the Air National Guard, the president said, then transferred to the University of Michigan.
“He graduated just a few weeks ago,” the president said. “And while he was there, he co-founded Student Veterans of America to help returning veterans like himself.”
Dr. Jill Biden, a community college instructor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, hosted the first White House Summit on Community Colleges yesterday. The event spotlighted the key role that local colleges play in American education and work force development.
“I have visited community colleges around the country,” she said. “These students are working hard to get the training and education they need to make their lives better.”
Biden told of one former community college student who wrote to the White House Web site detailing her struggles to attend school, raise three children and pay her bills. That woman is now employed and holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, Biden said.
“She wrote, ‘Community colleges didn’t just change my life, they gave me my life,’ ” she added.
The president said the United States is investing in community colleges and in making college more affordable.
“All of this will help ensure that we continue to lead the global economy — but only if we maintain this commitment to education that’s always been central to our success,” he said.
The summit brought together students, administrators, community leaders and government officials, including representatives from the departments of Education and Veterans Affairs. Breakout panel sessions included:
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, both participated in a discussion focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing servicemembers, veterans and military spouses considering or attending the nation’s community colleges.
“This is a very exciting opportunity for me to connect with what’s going on at the community college level, and see, as someone asked, what the barriers are,” said the admiral, who moderated the session. “I think that’s a good question: What’s working and what isn’t?”
The chairman’s wife said her interest in education extends beyond veterans.
“I’m interested in education for not just veterans, but also for military spouses,” she said. “And of particular interest is female veterans who … may not have the job skills [after leaving service] and have in many cases found their way, unfortunately, into homelessness.”
Blumke, the Air Force veteran Obama highlighted as an example, also participated in the chairman’s panel. Fitting in and feeling comfortable is the biggest challenge veterans face in returning to college, he said.
“The GI Bill is incredibly helpful,” he said. “It’s making the difference in being able to pay for school. But the big issue is social.”
Veterans are older than other students, and often have health issues that hinder their integration into an academic environment, Blumke said. Having dealt with depression, isolation and post-traumatic stress during his first few months at community college, he advised colleges to focus on building groups that bring veterans together to support each other. He said appointing dedicated faculty advisors, preferably veterans, can help to ensure a group’s continuity in the transitory community college environment.
Constance M. Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, agreed that veteran support is crucial to college success. Her district serves a population of more than 9,000 veterans and family members, she said.
“What we try to do for each college is have a predictable and comprehensive set of services that are well-published, with a lot of outreach,” she said.
Reintegration services, suicide prevention programs and mental health services should be basic considerations to a community college serving veterans, Carroll said.
“We have students who come to us with traumatic brain injury from the wars, which oftentimes requires specialized counseling and treatment, and relearning certain skills,” she said. “We have a new program, Heroes to Healthcare, which actually trains veteran students to work with other veteran students in the areas of health care.”
California offers priority enrollment and priority service to veterans.
“A 360-degree approach is needed. … [Veterans] come in all sizes, shapes and ages,” she said. “Given their service to our nation, that is the first area we budget.”
Mullen said most servicemembers nearing the end of their enlistments look forward to returning to civilian life, but often don’t do the planning that can help them reintegrate smoothly. Many veterans, he explained, “cross this bridge from structure and support and combat experience and things I never imagined I’d see, in some cases, back to where I came from, … and now I’m out there alone.”
The chairman said the services and the Defense Department have a responsibility to inform veterans about the educational opportunities that await them, and to help them prepare to cross that bridge.
Another panel member, Michael Walcoff, the acting undersecretary of veterans affairs for benefits, said VA has piloted and is expanding a program called Vet Success on Campus, designed to help veterans transition successfully to college life. The program works with Blumke’s organization, Student Veterans of America, to establish programs at schools with veteran populations, he said.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki understands the GI Bill is a great benefit and believes it’s great that many veterans are taking advantage of it, Walcoff said. “But the whole purpose of going to school is the idea that you’ll stay and graduate,” he added, “and then use your degree to get a good job.”
As the panel had discussed, he said, returning from a wartime military environment may be the biggest obstacle veterans face to succeeding in college, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Coming from that environment and then going to a university with a bunch of 18-year-olds who just got out of high school and are all excited at being able to drink beer, that’s a tough transition,” Walcoff said.
VA’s program is structured to help veterans navigate school bureaucracies, and also to provide veteran counselors who share some of the veteran-students’ experiences. Vet Success on Campus is in place at seven universities and two community colleges.
“The program has been very successful,” Walcoff said. “We are looking at putting funds in future budgets to be able to expand this program.”
Mullen told the story of one Iraq veteran student attending a community college in Texas who worked his way from a 1.5 grade point average to a 4.0, and then was recruited by Columbia University.
“They’re looking for responsible, mature leaders … from community colleges to four-year colleges throughout the country,” he said. “There’s tremendous opportunity here.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)