USA — Summit Highlights Veterans’ College Successes, Challenges

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)

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