June 7, 2014

FTCC’s All-American Veteran’s Center – A Best Practice for Vets

By J. Larry Keen

As our nation and our community scrutinize the current state of affairs in medical care for our vets, there is reason to take pride in other ways we have stepped up to better serve those who have bravely served our country.

The GI Bill, passed at the conclusion of World War II and recognized as a pillar of support for our military veterans, continues to secure a brighter future for those who have returned from service in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Indeed, on Sept. 11, 2012, in a rare exhibit of bipartisan equanimity, the House of Representatives passed a new law that strengthened the GI Bill and our promises to American vets. HR 4057 required the VA to implement policies assuring veterans are making well-informed decisions about their choices in pursuit of higher education and post-service job training. Importantly, the bill also required states to consider and value certain military training when granting licensing and credentialing in various occupations.

With more than a million troops returning and transitioning to civilian life, especially in an uncertain economy, it is critical that our nation’s channels to higher education and job training stand ready to put our veterans to work.

Here at Fayetteville Tech, no fewer than 3,000 veterans have enrolled since 2012, the highest vet enrollment among North Carolina colleges and universities.

Military Times has ranked FTCC as second highest on its list of Best for Vets for Career and Technical Colleges in 2014. This enrollment and our national ranking reflect one thing: the thought and effort FTCC is putting into tailoring programs and policies around veterans and their unique experiences.

On June 16, FTCC will officially celebrate the opening of our on-campus All American Veterans Center. The center is essential in supporting veterans as they transition to being successful students and employed graduates. And, it serves as a model organization to other campuses as they, too, seek to support our returning and retiring military personnel.

The Student Veterans of America has recognized FTCC as one of 11 outstanding student veterans centers across the country.

Why? First, consider the obstacles that challenge our veterans in an ordinary campus setting: a missing sense of camaraderie, feeling out-of-step with 18-year-old traditional students, a lack of understanding by faculty, combined with the visible and invisible wounds and memories of war.

Our Veterans Center recognizes all of this, and more. In addition to certifying military experience for educational credits, the center offers customized veteran tutoring and success coaching. Resume writing, interview preparation and job placement assistance are all veteran-specific.

Networking opportunities are scheduled with military-friendly employers and veterans’ organizations, while other off-campus providers are given space and a schedule to interact with vets on a regular basis.

The college’s Small Business Center, together with Innovation Fund North Carolina, offers on-campus business coaching to those wanting to start a business or who simply need help developing their business plan.

A computer lab, furnished with a generous grant from the Home Depot Foundation, provides an accessible academic environment for veteran students to complete homework, search for jobs or apply for benefits. And a lounge area is available simply so vets have a place to call their own on campus.

And, we engage early. We work with active duty military, National Guard and Reservists well before they begin their transition to civilian life. We help them identify the skills and knowledge they need – and already have – assuring that they make informed and intelligent decisions about their education and training opportunities and get the most from their GI Bill benefits.

Key to our Veterans’ Center’s success is that it is managed and staffed by veterans. It’s a peer organization, thereby immediately earning comfort and confidence among our veteran students.

But, perhaps the best measure of the Center’s and FTCC’s success with veterans is our graduation and employment rate. Of the 3,000 enrolled since 2012, 987 graduated in 2013 and another 872 graduated last month. More will graduate at the conclusion of summer sessions.

Of those who graduated in 2013, 13 percent went on to a four-year college or university. The remainder pursued careers in nursing, emergency medical science, funeral services, radiography, human resource management, business management, criminal justice, computer technology fields, building construction and plumbing. Which is to say, they are all well on their way to a successful civilian transition.

I was never more proud of FTCC’s commitment to our student veterans than during last month’s 52nd annual commencement exercises. Every veteran in attendance – students, faculty members and administration alike – was given a red, white and blue cord to wear along with their cap and gown. It was a stunning visual testament of our campus-wide commitment to serve well those who have served our country.

Dr. J. Larry Keen is president of Fayetteville Technical Community College.