OC ahead of the class in veteran support as legislation fails to catch up

By Kristin Okinaka

Jon Voelker’s eyes started to water as he recalled the first time he went back to school after serving in Vietnam. The transition was rough. Others didn’t understand what he was coming from. He didn’t think there was any vet support then.

Today, Voelker, 59, is back at school, studying project management in engineering and architectural design at Olympic College in Bremerton. While going back to school a second time — he dropped out around 1975 — isn’t necessarily a walk in the park, it’s much different from his first go ’round.

“I remember when I first got out of the service, [college] was trying and didn’t work,” Voelker said. “I was really disappointed in the way I was treated. I didn’t have anyone to help me. I felt lost. I gave up.”

Almost four decades later, the 2012 legislative session saw House Bill 1863 pass through the Higher Education Committee at a time when state colleges are seeing a flood of veterans looking to gain a college education with the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Also competing for those same students’ education dollars are the so-called for profit schools. The proposed legislation stood to increase the assistance for veteran students at colleges and universities around the state.

With the partnerships of Olympic College, Everett Community College, Skagit Valley College, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and Northwest Indian College formed with Western Washington University, the bill would have allowed for the university to receive money to distribute to the partner community colleges based on the number of veterans they serve. Western Washington would assign a variety of duties related to identifying resources, developing policies, training faculty and staff in order to provide a program that leverages the leadership skills of returning veterans to the schools. Participating colleges would provide forums for veterans to connect with one another, promote programs that help in the transition to civilian life and provide targeted planning and counseling services.

State representatives Larry Seaquist, Mike Sells, Marcie Maxwell, Fred Finn and Timm Ormsby sponsored the bill originally during the 2011 session. It froze in place Jan. 9, 2012 and never returned to the Higher Education Committee. They planned to spend $872,000 in 2012 and $1 million in 2013.

Ron Shade, vice president of student services at OC, said the school is already providing many of those services to its veteran students — especially with the new vet center.

Eileen Coughlin, senior vice president for the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services at Western Washington, said in a February 2011 public testimony on the bill at a Higher Education Committee hearing that she understood that it is “extremely difficult times” in terms of money but that even without funding, the university and the community colleges have already come together.

“We believe this is a better business practice when you have a coalition serving,” she said.

Then and now

Voelker was in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1973 serving in the Vietnam War while he was in his early 20s. He was unable to get a job in the medical field because he was not state-certified so he enrolled at Green River Community College in Auburn. Voelker wasn’t “well-received” by classmates or teachers once they learned he had served in Vietnam. Even the guys he grew up with didn’t want to associate with him. His wife at the time thought he had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nightmares of the war would stay with him for 15 years.

A few years after dropping out of Green River, Voelker started working as a cook with a dual purpose of income and easy access to food. From about 1976 to 1977, he was a sous chef for a catering company in Seattle. Although he enjoyed cooking, he made the decision to go into construction — building was something he had grown up doing from a young age with his step-dad — and spent 20 years building houses as a contractor in California. In 2003, he and his wife left California to live in Port Townsend, to be closer to his brother who lives there.

Last September, Voelker began taking classes at Olympic College because his body can no longer take the wear-and-tear of construction work. He is studying project management in addition to working toward a certificate in architectural design.

The feel of college for the aging Vietnam veteran is much different this time.

“It’s basically more help than I have ever received,” Voelker said in between classes on a Monday afternoon at the beginning of March. He was studying for finals at the Veteran and Military Service Center on campus.

Not even a year old, the center is a place for veteran and military students that provides resources as well as Internet-ready computers for checking email or completing coursework. It’s also a place for students of similar backgrounds or experiences to come together and just hang out, or have alone time.

The center, which opened in May 2011, is completely volunteer-operated and also hosts a potluck once a month for the students. Some of the resources available at the center include referrals if a student has trouble getting started at the school, said Larry Cleman, a full-time center volunteer.  Referrals are available for both services within OC as well as outside agencies in Kitsap County. There is also an AmeriCorps member who works at the center.

Cleman said it’s understood that the veteran students are at OC “for school.”

“They’re on a mission. They’re here for school,” he said, adding that many are returning to school to be retrained in a field, whether it be new or of the same area they worked in while in the military.

Voelker is grateful that the vet center on campus exists and said if there had been something like it when he was at Green River, maybe his schooling back then would have turned out differently.

While the vet center and the resources it provides for students is a positive contribution, there is always more that can be done to provide for the veteran student population.

Getting it

When veteran students first enroll at OC, they are placed in small group sessions to receive more information on items such as their benefits or part-time job opportunities. There is no specific counseling service for veterans but if they meet the needs for disabilities services, they are able to receive services from that department.

“Like any population, their needs vary,” said Shade of vets.

Making advancements to education planning and advising, Shade said a new academic advising process has begun for all students, including veterans. After a student takes 15 credits, there is a first “check point” as well as after fulfilling 45 credits, the student is required to meet with an adviser. Winter quarter, which ended mid-March, saw 11 students participate in the new advising rhythm as a trial. About 250 students will participate in spring quarter with the move to have all students going through it in the future, said Shade.

For this year’s winter quarter, 856 veterans enrolled at OC, which includes both those who do, and do not claim benefits, said Dianna Larsen, dean of enrollment services. This number is up 9 percent from the number of veteran students enrolled in winter quarter 2011.

There were also 177 family members of veterans and 306 military or active duty and their family members enrolled this winter quarter. The quarter had a total enrollment of about 8,288 students.

“A number of people come out of the military [and] are going to locations that they enjoyed. Bremerton is a big port, a lot of people that live in this area are because of the military,” Larsen said.

“We’re here to learn”

In 2009, Washington state veterans received $119.5 million from the U.S. Veterans Administration for education and vocational rehabilitation training, which was a 25 percent increase from the year before.

Some claim the increase in veteran students to be because of the down economy and people in general that are going back to school.

“With the recession and a lack of jobs, many are trying to figure out how to better prepare themselves,” said Wendy McFadden, program specialist in the student services department at OC.

McFadden has been working at the school since 1998, as a veterans’ certifying official. Her job is to certify student vets or their family members for VA benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays for the student’s full tuition as long as the classes are going toward a graduation requirement, said McFadden. It also covers a basic housing stipend and some fees for books and supplies.

McFadden’s office has 1.5 employees including herself, so help is therefore received by VA work study members. They are vet students who have gone through the benefits process and answer questions from new students or those seeking to start their education.

For many of the student vets, they went into the military right out of high school, so OC is their first time at a college, said McFadden.

Ryan Katula graduated from OC last summer with an associate’s degree in science and is currently studying at the University of Washington in Seattle to receive a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He’s also a VA work study student, answering students’ questions in McFadden’s office.

Katula, 28, enrolled at OC in the fall of 2008 right after coming out of the military. He had been a field technician for six years and was last stationed in Kitsap  on a submarine after being at a power plant in California.

“It was certainly different,” said Katula. “It’s definitely a culture shock.”

Added to the difference of taking and following orders in the military compared to a school setting where students must seek help if they want it, the age disparity was also something to get used to, Katula recalled. He was 25 when he started at OC, which seemed older than the “average” teenager who recently graduated high school. Although the first-year transition was “rocky,” Katula said that the advising was helpful. Many large public universities like UW expect students to know how to use the GI Bill, but at OC students are able to get their questions answered, he added. Katula currently receives benefits from both the original GI Bill and the post-9/11 one.

No matter where the veterans were stationed when they served or what they did in the military or if they went to war, they share a common culture and background.

“The hardest part for me was interacting with the civilian populace. That took time,” said Mark Walsh, 60, who works as a custodian for the sports department at OC.

Prior to starting work at OC in 2005, Walsh, a retired U.S. Coast Guardsman, attended the school as a student for several years until 2003. He retired from the Coast Guard in 1994 after serving for 22 years and wanted to study archeology and history.

Many vet students describe the regimen of other students differently as they are the ones who may typically be seen texting during class or arriving late. David Sieman, a retired Navy electrician, is studying electronics at OC and said he doesn’t let other students’ behavior bother him, adding that it can be “shocking.”

“I’m used to military schools where if class starts at 8, you best be in your seat,” he said. “We’re here for a reason, we’re here to learn. That’s why I don’t skip a day.”

Sieman, 48, visits the vet center on campus every day. He said that not only does he like being around the people there, but there is a sense of security — he can leave his backpack unattended while he goes to a class and knows it will be there when he returns.

Although Sieman spent 23 years working on the exptremely complicated electronics on submarines in the Navy followed by eight years as an electronics installer at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, he was told over and over by potential employers that he needs a degree in order to be hired. Due to cuts in staff, he was laid off from the shipyard contractor last summer.

“I have the education and training. I just don’t have the piece of paper,” Sieman said. “Most military people have the knowledge but civilians don’t know that. It’s a stigmatism we have to overcome.”

Vets like Sieman who go back to school in order to get a degree or certificate in an area they may already be an expert in isn’t uncommon. Legislation that would recognize veterans’ training from the military to the classroom so they do not have to “start from the beginning,” would be a good step forward, Cleman said.

“Why not give them credit for that when they come to school rather than relearn it all?” Cleman added.

What veteran students can focus on for now — as they aways seem to do — is academics. And, through inclusion at the OC veteran center, supporting one another and finding help through resources available. The center is always stocked with snacks and coffee, free-of-charge to the students, that volunteers provide. Frequently it is the students themselves that bring in items.

Remembering the struggles he faced when he first attended school, Voelker said he donates food items to the center in hopes to help the younger students who may be going through difficult transitions of their own.

“Sometimes talking to counselors isn’t enough. It just doesn’t work. It’s not how many times you talk to someone, but who you talk to,” Voelker said.

His second time around, Voelker found the right people in the veteran center.