More than 50 percent of veterans receiving education benefits in California’s public higher education systems attend one of 113 California community colleges, and many seek out information on financial aid, priority registration and help with transitioning back into civilian life.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is here to help the active-duty military, veterans, reservists and their dependents. During the 2011-2012 academic year, more than 44,000 people received assistance at the community colleges.
Jake Chavez and Justin Turner are prime examples of how well a renewed focus on how to assist the wave of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is working.
Chavez, 25, attends Sierra College in Rocklin, a suburb of Sacramento. He was a U.S. Marine Corps gunner tasked to provide security detail. Corp. Chavez did 22 months over two tours in Iraq, mostly in Ramadi, he said. On patrol one afternoon, his unit was struck by an improvised explosive device and Chavez suffered shrapnel and concussive injuries.
He doesn’t like to talk about the experience, he said, but it is part of who he is and his experiences in Iraq help him relate to the other nearly 600 veterans who are enrolled on the Rocklin campus. As an office assistant in the on-campus Veteran’s Affairs office, Chavez helps his fellow vets navigate the process of enrolling for classes and maximizing their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Boots to Books was co-founded by Dr. Bruce Solheim, center front, a Citrus College professor and volunteer veterans coordinator at the Glendora campus. This first class from 2007 participated in the nation’s first college credit course designed to assist veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s also there to lend an ear, to help ease that transition to civilian life that can prove extremely difficult for soldiers used to the disciplined life in the military and the dangers of life in a war zone.
"Getting back into a classroom is difficult for a lot of us," Chavez said. "We haven’t used those academic skills in a long time and sitting in a classroom when you’re used to the front lines is quite an adjustment."
Chavez said he wasn’t much of a student in high school in Lindsey, Calif. He barely maintained a 2.0 grade point average, he said, just enough to remain eligible for sports. But now the criminal justice major reports he has a 3.9 GPA and is looking to transfer to California State University, Sacramento in 2013.
Justin Turner, 26, was a U.S. Army Calvary scout and spent 15 months in Baghdad, Iraq before an enemy attack in 2008 left the Sacramento City College alumnus now attending CSU Sacramento disabled with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He returned to his Yuba City home the same year and recovered enough to enroll in classes at Sac City using his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits package. He quickly got involved with the campus’ Veterans Resource Center (VRC) at Sacramento City College and springboarded into student government. He was the student body president in 2011.
"I’m proud to say (Sacramento City College) is one of the most military friendly schools in the state," Turner said. "I’ve always been very impressed with our VRC."
Turner said he’s proud of his work helping veterans get priority registration and 10 percent discounts on registration fees, books and at the cafeteria. Had he been successful getting a discount on parking passes, he jokes he could have run for governor.
"We’re really focused on awareness on campus of the VRC," Turner said. "We want to make sure any returning vet knows we exist and what we can do for them."
Turner, 25, said the biggest complaint he hears from his fellow soldiers is that many professors do not understand the difficulties many of them face in the classroom.
That disconnect can easily get in the way of a veteran’s educational goals and outreach to both sides is key, Turner said.
"A lot of the veteran’s say the faculty doesn’t understand our disabilities," Turner said. "It comes from the fight or flight mode we were operating on for years. It’s like ‘are you challenging me? OK, let’s battle.’ That’s maybe not the best thing to have working in an academic setting."
In 2010, the Chancellor’s Office piloted a training program developed under a $75,000 grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation. The purpose was to develop and implement a training program for faculty and staff that focuses on the mental health and transitional needs of student veterans. The major objectives of the training are to increase awareness about the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression, so that faculty and staff can better recognize and respond to these conditions. The training was provided to faculty and staff at De Anza College, City College of San Francisco and College of San Mateo. The Chancellor’s Office was successful in renewing this grant so that additional trainings may be provided.
"We received positive feedback on the trainings," said Michael Dear, a specialist with the Chancellor’s Office who works with veteran services programs. "We are grateful for renewed funding to expand the training statewide."
Chavez said an innovative for-credit class called "Boots to Books" helped him stay focused on his schoolwork and obtain his stellar GPA.
Boots to Books was co-founded by Dr. Bruce Solheim, a Citrus College professor and volunteer veterans coordinator at the Glendora campus. First offered in 2007, the program was the nation’s first college credit course designed to assist returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. An emphasis also is placed on helping veterans transfer their combat skills to career building. Sierra College was the second California Community Colleges campus to adopt the program, Solheim said, followed by Pasadena City College. It’s now offered at approximately 20 California community colleges and nine community colleges throughout the nation.
"I think (co-founder) Manuel Martinez said it best, Boots to Books is ‘basic training for civilian life,'" said Solheim, a tenured professor of United States history at Citrus College. "The three-unit transferrable course teaches students how to take those skills they learned in the military and apply them to civilian life. They also learn how to cope with the impact combat has had on their mind and body. It’s really like a college success class only modified for veterans."
The course is named Counseling 160 in the Citrus College catalog and is open to all students, no matter if they’ve served in the military. Solheim said the first class in the fall of 2007 had a father of a son who was stationed in Iraq. He wanted to learn what to expect when his son returned from duty and how best to help him transition back into civilian life.
The 16-week class at Citrus College had 45 students for the fall 2012 semester, said instructor Monica Christianson. Of those 45, 17 are veterans and four are dependents. The rest have no military experience, Christianson said. The mix of students can offer revealing glimpses of life for veterans as well as those who have no first-hand knowledge of the military and its culture. Sometimes class discussions become heated, Christianson said, but even the tension-filled classes can be a valuable learning experience.
"The veterans don’t always want to admit they have (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or don’t know and understand what (Traumatic Brain Injury) is, so when this is covered they come in to talk about it with me or they begin the dialogue about their own symptoms," said Christianson, who is teaching the class for the second time. "For the non-experienced civilians, they get to see a bigger picture of awareness and sensitivity for the vets. The dependents use it as an opportunity to share their experiences and their frustrations - they suffer too. Some vets don’t voice or volunteer they are vets because they don’t like the questions they get from other students."
Christianson said in one recent class a vet was relating his experiences to the class and some students behind him were carrying on a conversation. The veteran turned back and glared at his classmates. Christianson said the students weren’t talking about the veteran but the perception that they were was enough to anger the man. After the situation was diffused, Christianson explained to the class how the disrespect and lack of courtesy are triggers for some vets and need to be acknowledged and avoided.
Manuel Martinez knows all too well how difficult the transition to civilian life can be. Boots to Books was Martinez’ idea, Solheim said. Solheim provided his academic experience and guidance to get the program off the ground and co-founder Ginger De Villa-Rose stepped in with much-needed organizational and promotional help, Solheim said.
"I put the subject matter together and it was all based on the work I’ve done for years dealing with these veteran’s issues," said Martinez, a readjustment counseling therapist at the East Los Angeles Veterans Center. "Boots to Books was also based on my own experiences when I got back from Vietnam and the problems I had readjusting. It’s a real culture clash between military and civilian life and unfortunately it takes some time for these guys to turn off those survival instincts."
Soldheim and Martinez encourage veteran students to pair up with another veteran who has already made the transition. Instead of battle buddies, Martinez said, veterans form class buddies and get a close-support system. Martinez said he’s proud that Boots to Books is spreading, but said more needs to be done.
"It’s all about promoting the services to these veterans," Martinez said. "They have to know we’re here (on campus) and what’s available before they can get the help they need."