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Serving Those Who Served: Orange County Community Colleges Support Veterans Feature Story
For student veterans seeking counseling, camaraderie, or a respite from academic or social pressures, a Veterans Resource Center can be a campus refuge. All Orange County community colleges boast robust support services and spaces for veterans, much like the newly opened center at Cypress College.
The new center, which had its grand opening in October, is a 3,500-square-foot space that includes four offices, a conference room, a study and eating area, and more than 20 computers available for use. It also features a Memorial Bridge that provides the community an opportunity to commemorate the service of veterans and a Tribute Garden that has the flags of the five military branches.
At the grand opening of the center, Marine Corps veteran Stevan Vargas, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after two tours in Afghanistan, spoke about what the center means to him and how the help of Veteran Coordinator/Counselor Juan Garcia helped him deal with his struggles at school.
“The high point of my time at Cypress was definitely working on this new Veterans Resource Center,” said Vargas, who served as the president of Cypress’ Veteran’s Club and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Cal State Long Beach. “At times, it was a bit overwhelming for me, but my heart told me to keep pushing, if not for me, but for the future dreams of all our veterans.”
According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office more than 89,000 active military, veterans and dependents are enrolled in California community colleges. Throughout California and Orange County, these community colleges recognize the special needs of veterans and provide a wide variety of services. Those services include:
- Assistance with G.I. education benefits and veteran’s certification
- Mental health services
- Peer-to-peer mentoring
- Academic and career counseling
Cypress College also offers a First-Year Advantage program to veterans, acknowledging that many of them need to improve their basic academic skills after serving in the military. “We offer a one-week boot camp in English and math,” Garcia says. “Then they come in a little more equipped for their first English and math classes.”
Garcia, who served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008 before coming to Cypress College, said veteran students have different experiences and needs than a student just out of high school. The average veteran student at the college is 32 years old, compared to an average age of 25 for the general student population. Cypress College serves about 950 veterans, active-duty military and reserves, and their dependents.
“They are not traditional students,” he says. “They stepped away from school for a certain amount of time and tend to be older. They have a lot of experience and skills. They have a lot of life experience with additional responsibilities.”
Garcia said veterans may have difficulties adjusting to campus life after being in the military.
“The military is very structured. There’s a lot of tradition,” Garcia says. “When you take someone out of that environment and put them on a campus that’s more individualistic, they lose that, and they start feeling anxious.”
Despite this, compared to other students, veterans have higher success rates in their classes and a higher retention rate in terms of continuing their education, said Garcia who believes it is important for community colleges to show their commitment to equity by providing the services that veterans need to succeed in their education.
“Our service members have served our country,” he says. “Colleges are not turning their backs on veterans anymore.”