“When I started, I just knew how to fix stuff in the garage professionally,” reflects Golden West College Automotive Tech grad Thomas Nguyen on his first day as a professional automotive tech. “The training at the Golden West was [that] good.”
Veteran Student Zach Whitrock Is Engineering Success at IVC Programs
The job of an engineering officer is to build and maintain military bases — sometimes right in the middle of hostile territory. And Zachariah Whitrock, Navy veteran and Irvine Valley College student, wants a piece of the action.
“Operational engineering officers are building those structures with a rifle slung around their back and a hammer in their hand,” says Whitrock, who is now taking a break from the Navy to pursue a college degree through the Engineering Academy at IVC.
Whether it’s building disaster relief structures or engineering a city, Whitrock knows that no matter where he lands, he’ll find fulfilling work when he returns to the service. “I’ve already done a boots-on-the-ground combat tour, and it was very satisfying,” he says.
The idea to become an engineer hit when Whitrock was stationed at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego.
“I got to meet a whole bunch of Naval engineers who were on that base,” he says. “I was very impressed by the level of morale and the tight-knit community they had.”
Aside from the attitude, Whitrock noted that the engineers all had a shared education and skill set, and he started asking them questions. Many of them, he found, were enlisted previously, but had decided to go to school and then return to the service with advanced training and degrees.
“They had already done it,” Whitrock recalls, “They said, ‘go for it!’”
And that’s exactly what he did. To achieve his dream, Whitrock paused his 10-year Navy career, transferred to the Reserve, and returned to college to study engineering. Thanks in part to his supportive family, which lives locally, the transition back to school was smooth.
He also found stellar support and resources for veterans at IVC. The staff helped him every step of the way, and he remains grateful for the tremendous resources they offered, calling the service he received “incredible.”
At the top of Whitrock’s list of people to thank is Certifying Official Ezekiel Hall, who helped process Whitrock’s GI Bill. When veterans sign up for classes, Hall lets Veterans Affairs (VA) know, so that they can make payments for the tuition and living stipend.
“It’s potentially thousands of dollars we could miss out on if that gets mishandled,” Whitrock relates. “Ezekiel is an absolute ace with it.”
According to Hall, the GI Bill is one of the first roadblocks that many veteran students encounter. “It’s not uncommon for there to be some kind of hiccup or hang-up where somebody doesn’t get paid, and they want to know why,” says Hall. Fortunately for IVC students, Hall has been handling GI Bill issues for more than eight years, catching the small things that students might miss, and helping them avoid larger financial problems.
Hall is just one example of the strong support network available for vets at IVC.
“It’s just a really good group of people,” says Whitrock. “They have a really big heart for us.”
When it comes to the free tutoring, offered specifically for vets, Whitrock feels the love. And dedicated tutors for math, English, and other subjects are just the beginning. Many of the IVC faculty volunteer at the Veterans Services Center, coming in between their classes to give extra help to students who served.
“There’s really a campus community here that wants to support and help veterans out,” explains Hall.
Through his community college, the future engineer also found outstanding financial aid assistance. According to Whitrock, many veterans are unaware of the steps it takes to get started, or even if they qualify. That’s where the people at Veterans Services come in.
“They sit us down, and they ask us, ‘Have you done this yet?’ … ‘No, I didn’t even know I could do that!’”
Last term, Whitrock applied for 13 scholarships that the “tenacious” Veterans Services found for him. “If I didn’t have the Veterans Services Center,” he says, “I wouldn’t have even sought the scholarships out.”
There are even more resources at the Center, including a dedicated doctor and vocational rehab specialist. There is also a psychologist on staff who deals directly with veterans’ issues like PTSD.
In fact, accessible mental health services is a huge priority of the Center. Many of the VA’s mental health services are far away in Long Beach, which is difficult for students. The Center is trying to change that.
“We try to bring some mental health services here so students can have access between classes,” says Hall.
Healthcare coverage can be another hurdle for students. On the whole, veterans getting off of active duty qualify for five years of healthcare through the VA, but many don’t know that they have to enroll first. Veterans Services at IVC encourages them to do that.
“One of the big things we try to make sure is that they are getting access to healthcare,” says Hall. “Because if they’re not healthy, they’re not going to do well in school.”
On top of ensuring well-being, the Veterans Services Center at IVC fosters a warm, welcoming community. As an older and more worldly student, Whitrock initially found it difficult to connect with the more traditional students who had just graduated high school. Through the Veterans Services Center, he was able to find his peers.
“Just having people to talk to who have been to the same place and done the same thing, people you can really relate to, that’s great,” says Whitrock.
The Center offers a popular monthly gathering for veterans, which includes a hamburger and hotdog barbecue. Another common Center activity is relaxing on the couch and watching reruns of The Office on the “big TV.”
Occasionally, these connections are so strong, they can be distracting. Though Whitrock often gets his homework done at the Center’s computer lab, a common danger is getting sidetracked by the engaging conversations. For him, though, it’s well worth it, as the Center provides a place full of friendly faces where he feels comfortable to be himself and speak his mind.
“It’s fun to relax a little bit, and just be-bop with the boys,” says Whitrock.
The camaraderie with other veterans also helps Whitrock with his studies. Engineering is an exciting but challenging track, and the support he finds from fellow vets makes all the difference.
“It’s really nice when my lab partners are other veterans because they’re older, more mature, and focused,” he says. “It’s nice to be in a group of people that have the same goals and level of dedication.”
Whitrock has found his “home away from home” at the Veterans Services Center. And he would recommend it highly to other vets looking to return to school to further their careers.
“I’ll just say that there is an abundance of resources,” says Whitrock. “If you go to the Veterans Services Center at Irvine Valley College, you’ll be well taken care of!”
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