Navigating the currents of higher education is seldom easy, but can be especially challenging for students who embark from a very different way of life—the military. Fortunately, guidance is available at Tarrant County College through the Veterans Resource Centers.
“I like to think of it as a lighthouse that becomes a beacon,” said Bill Alexander, veterans counselor at TCC Northwest. “Veterans have a unique perspective because of some of the experiences they’ve had.”
Mike Sherer, who spent almost three years after leaving the Army sleeping on a concrete floor in a metal building due to financial problems, saw that beacon. So did Briona McLemore, homeless for six months after her separation from the service. Same for Nicole Hearne who, while not actually diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), is “super vigilant” and uncomfortable in a classroom when other students are sitting behind her. They’re among some 3,700 other student veterans for whom the centers are places of resources and, occasionally, of refuge.
The Veterans Resource Centers, one on each campus, grew from what Valerie Groll at TCC South called an “awesome vision” in 2013 to meet the needs of vets leaving the service and using their educational benefits. “They needed a place where somebody knew about their benefits and could maybe provide some counseling, some transitional support,” she said.
The logical site for the first center, then called VetSuccess, was at Groll’s campus. It not only had a healthy veteran population, thanks in part to its numerous technical programs, but it also was close to the Veterans Administration office, the VA Medical and Outpatient Clinics and the Texas Veterans Commission. Indeed, from its inception, VetSuccess has been a true partnership between the VA and TCC, which now hosts two VA employees on TCC Northeast and TCC Northwest.
As the veteran population grew and diversified across the District, however, the administration moved toward placing a center on each campus, with the last one opening at TCC Northeast this fall. No longer will the veteran have to travel to another campus for specialized services.
According to Rebecca Griffith, district director of admissions and records and coordinator of the District’s programs for veterans, the increase in veterans reflects the number of people leaving the service after deployment to the Middle East and the fact that Texas is “an extremely veteran-friendly state,” with programs ranging from free auto license plates to free college tuition under the Hazlewood Act. Other factors include the large number of military installations in the state, its job growth and its lack of a state income tax. Little wonder that Texas is home to more vets—1,680,418—than any other state except California.
TCC’s Veterans Resource Centers provide several valuable services, but finances usually top the list. No matter what the vets face, Groll said, “If they’re living in their car and not sure how they’re going to eat, it’s really hard to focus on healing. So money is very important because it’s fundamental to their basic needs.”
When new vets come to Groll’s center, their first stop is with Chelsea Kervin, an enrollment specialist who can guide them through the various benefits offered under the GI Bill©. Once the financial picture is clearer, they interview with either Groll or Michelle Mastick, her part-time assistant, but the getting-to-know-you session works both ways. “We’re establishing a trusting relationship,” she said. “Trust is very important with this population, and when trust is broken or not established, it’s really hard to make progress.”
The new veterans are asked about their goals and expectations and, in turn, learn about the various service available to them through the Veterans Resource Center, other offices on campus or agencies in the community, such as the VA. Should such services be needed, the veteran, instead of merely being told to go to a given department, agency or website, is treated to a “warm handoff.”
“The important part to us is that we know who we’re sending them to,” said Abdel Casiano, who works part-time in TCC South’s center. “So, if I’m sending someone to the Writing Center, I know someone over there to go talk to and say, ‘We have this veteran who needs help. Can you see him?’ And if I can, I’ll take him over there personally and introduce them.”
The warm handoff also extends to faculty. “Even when I help a veteran plan a class schedule, I’m choosing specific teachers,” he said. “I say to take these people’s classes. They’ll get you to a university level. I know how they work with veterans, and this will be a really good fit for you.’”
Casiano is a veritable poster child for the Veterans Resource Center. He freely admits to having barely graduated from Kennedale High School and having “zero interest” in college, joining the Navy instead. Once out, higher education still wasn’t on his to-do list, but he wanted to become a police officer and lack of college was a barrier. “Then, when I met my girlfriend and now wife, she suggested I go to school,” he said. “I told her it wasn’t for me, but she pushed me. I came to VetSuccess and it was the best decision I ever made. It was here I met Valerie (Groll), and it was a very comforting experience. She handled me with kid gloves. It’s like she knew my transition from the military was already rough.”
He eventually earned an Associate of Arts from TCC, transferred to TCU for a bachelor’s in social work and is now working on his doctorate in social work at The University of Texas at Austin. What’s more, thanks to his veteran’s educational benefits, he made it through TCU debt-free.
In Casiano’s unofficial role as sounding board/mentor, he’s prepared for the new veterans who doubt their ability to earn a degree. “I share my story,” he said. “Nine times out of ten, by the time they come to us, it’s because they realize they need more education. But they, too, joined the military because they did not want more school. I tell them that who they were doesn’t define who they are now, and that they have an opportunity to change.”
Often, he said, veterans he has advised return and thank him, saying, “I didn’t think this was for me, but I absolutely enjoyed it.”
Getting into college and being in college can be two very different experiences, however. “The military and higher education could not be any more diametrically opposed,” said Alexander. The military, he explained, is a very structured, rigorous environment and he should know, having served nine years in the Navy before coming to TCC Northwest as a student 20 years ago. ‘In the service, one is told where to live, what to wear, what to do and when to do it.
Furthermore, he said, “We do what we call ‘live life together.’ Not only do we work together, but after work we’re communing with each other. And our wives are friends. Our kids grow up together.”
Additionally, there is what the veterans have lived through.
We bring experiences into a classroom that other people have not considered, from combat experience to traveling around the world and living overseas.
TCC Northwest Veterans Counselor
The openness and liberality of campus life can thus be hard on vets, especially those who have experienced combat. “They can be hypersensitive, hypervigilant,” Groll said. “Just walking on a college campus—lots of students, lots of noise, sudden sounds. I mean, it’s all overwhelming.”
The veteran’s unease doesn’t necessarily end at the classroom door, but it may take on a new form—annoyance at the conduct of their classmates. “The first time I have veterans coming to me with a concern, that’s usually what it is,” Alexander said. “They don’t understand how they can successfully navigate a class when other students are doing this or that, or acting to a faculty member in a way that’s completely disrespectful.”
In such cases, the veteran’s bewilderment with college life may take on a tint of anger. “In the military, your superior tells you to do something and you do it,” said Sherer, who saw combat as a sergeant in Iraq. “The consequences are too great not to. If I tell someone to put on his helmet and he doesn’t and ends up dead, I’m responsible for that. So, you have this frame of mind, and people don’t understand it.”
Hearne, a Navy intelligence specialist who has her eye on a nursing career, has found group work difficult. “People don’t have that sense of follow-through that we were trained to have, because if we didn’t follow through, people died,” she said. “So, I’m having to take a step back to be able to change my thinking.”
As a Navy corpsman, McLemore could tell younger people she supervised to sit down and be quiet. “I can’t do that here,” she said of her younger classmates. “They show up whenever they want to. They talk to the teacher however they want.”
It’s hard, she said, to hold her tongue, and she hasn’t always done it. “I kind of forgot where I was and used language that wasn’t the best,” she said.
Salty language is another common problem veterans’ counselors deal with. “Sometimes the language becomes rough and colorful and certainly is not widely accepted in the civilian world, much less in higher education,” Alexander said.
“We kind of get to talk them down,” said Casiano.
Often, the campus veterans talk each another down. “We always seem to gravitate to one another,” Hearne said. “It’s nice to know there’s a safe place to go and talk with somebody who understands. It’s that feeling of community you miss when you leave the service.”
That community is also a source of help with coursework. “I recently had a student who said he was having trouble with a geology class,” Groll said. “I looked at the roster for that class and said, ‘You have eight vets in that class. There’s your resource.’”
She maintains a spreadsheet listing which courses every vet is taking. If someone needs assistance, she sends out an email to others enrolled in that course asking if they’d be willing to help. “I’ve never sent out an SOS and had nobody reply,” she said. It’s the ethos of military life in which one depends on and unhesitatingly come to the aid of the person to the left or right – what Alexander calls “battle buddies.”
Veterans have some issues, however, that are beyond the College’s ability to solve. That’s why the veterans’ counselors are constantly out in the community, making and maintaining contacts with the Veterans Administration, Mental Health-Mental Retardation, United Way, Workforce Solutions, Good Samaritans and Veterans Court. “We want those agencies to tell people to go to the Veterans Resources Centers at TCC, because they know they can trust what they’re getting from us,” said Groll. “Again, it’s that warm handoff so that our veterans have that trusting feeling like going from one base to another.”
TCC’s student veterans are appreciative of the centers and their staff members. “They are absolutely amazing,” Hearne said. “I think they’re definitely on the right track. They make a really big effort to have a physical presence (on campus) so they can let people know the resources available to them.”
We come here just to keep ourselves from being in our own thoughts. It’s our safe place.
Former Navy Corpsman
Sherer acts as an unofficial recruiter for the TCC Northwest center. A friend and fellow vet was trying to decide between TCC and Weatherford College, and Sherer told him, “Go talk to Bill (Alexander) before you make that decision. Let him figure out what’s best for you. He’ll give you the right answer regardless.”
“Bill is amazing,” said McLemore. “He is very thorough and takes care of us. I love Bill.”
Working in the Veterans Resources Center is, indeed, a labor of love. “I am very fortunate to serve those who have allowed me my freedom,” said Groll, whose father, husband and son have been or are in the service. “I’ve been involved in the military all my life, and I’m proud to be able to give back.”
“I absolutely love my job,” said Casiano. “To be able to come back for Valerie, to have her to ask me to come back and share my experiences and help others. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It took another counseling position at another college for Alexander to realize “what my lifelong calling was, and that’s to serve my brothers and sisters as I knew I could. I couldn’t get to Tarrant County College quick enough, and there’s nothing else I can think of that I’d ever want to do.”
Find more information about how TCC serves veterans and military-connected families.