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Boots to Books: Services For Veterans Foster Success

By Linda Orcelletto

Each of the 6,458 students attending COCC this term has a different background; from students who are just out of high school, to single parents with full or part time jobs, those pursuing second careers or students from out of the area who are on their own for the first time. Many of these students have also had additional life experiences by serving in our military.

Jason Brocius, who served in the Air Force in vehicle operations and logistics for nearly five years, is pursuing a nursing career. Without receiving veterans benefits, it wouldn't be possible for him to return to the military as a medical officer.

"There is no question that without the GI Bill, I could not afford to attend the nursing program full time," says Brocius, who maintains a 3.75 GPA. "The tuition, book stipends and especially housing allowance make success attainable for me, my wife and two kids. Life is certainly less stressful."

Nearly 350 students and/or dependents from various branches of services are currently using veterans educational benefits. The majority of enrollees receive benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill TM.

Depending upon eligibility including active-duty service, if you are a member of the National Guard or Reserves, or a military dependent, benefits may include tuition, books and housing stipends. Additional assistance might be one-time rural relocation payments, certification/licensing exams or tutoring services. Tuition and fee costs, based on the students percentage of eligibility, is paid directly to COCC form the Veterans Administration (VA).

Tiago and Jason
Tiago Oliveira and Jason Brocius

Lisa Bacon, financial aid specialist and veterans educational benefits coordinator, works as a conduit with VA in Oklahoma not only to assist students in applying for VA benefits, but then verifying each students credits and fees, allowing each veteran student to receive benefits.

"Getting started with VA benefits can be complicated," says Bacon. "We are the gateway for veterans to receive the benefits they are entitled to. Hopefully the incentive to go on to higher learning outweighs any barriers."

Bacon refers students to on-campus advisors or to the local vet center to help students choose the best career path to maximize benefits, since all costs of attending two-year or four-year colleges aren't covered. Bacon also encourages vets and military dependents to apply for federal financial aid to bring the gap.

Veterans benefits are strictly regulated by the VA and are similar nationwide. How COCC executes the veterans student experience is what sets it apart from other community colleges.

Gordon Price, director of student life and part time veterans advocate, says, "We want to offer a connective experience knowing that veterans have a different perspective."

Both financial aid and veterans services are offered in the same building, making a seemingly overwhelming process less complicated. A veterans lounge in the Coats Campus Center offers a quiet place with coffee, a computer with online access, community resources and comradery for veterans to connect with others who've had similar experiences. Monthly, Bacon partners with the Oregon Military Support Network including Central Oregon Veterans Outreach (COVO), mental health, the National Guard Armory and other organization so shes in tune with what is happening in the community. COCC's Boots to Books program offers veteran students workshops on study skills, time management plus campus orientation, which helps ease the transition from the well-defined military routine to a less structured civilian life.

A few years ago, a counselor presented a workshop for interested staff and faculty to offer support for returning veterans to college. Nearly 25 people attended the workshop that addressed post-traumatic stress syndrome and other challenges faced by veterans. Each participant received a yellow ribbon to display outside his/her office which signifies that faculty/staff is either a veteran, or actively supports veterans by offering a welcome space and safe zone for veterans to simply stop to chat or connect.

Tiago Oliveira, an aviation major, feels comfortable using the lounge to reach out to other veterans. He also participated in the textbook loan program to ease the burden of costs not covered by the book stipend. Oliveira spent most of his four and a half years in the United States Marine Corps stationed at 29 Palms California as a M1A1 Battle Tank Technician.

"The GI Bill means everything to me and my wife. It is unlikely that I would be furthering my education, and consequently improving my future," says Oliveira, who also served a tour in Afghanistan in 2010. "The GI Bill provides a way for me to concentrate on my studies while having the huge burden of finances practically eliminated."

COCC has been offering veterans educational assistance since benefits first became available to students. A full-time veterans advocate position is in COCC's future, ensuring veterans receive the financial and community support they deserve for the sacrifices they made for our country.

Most enrolled programs offered by COCC

  • Aviation Helicopter
  • Aviation Airplane
  • Associate of Arts transfer programs (to attend a four-year college or university)

Veterans using benefits (Fall Term)

  • Fall 2009: 220
  • Fall 2010: 303
  • Fall 2011: 331
  • Fall 2012: 345
  • Fall 2013: 337
  • Fall 2014: 349

Gender

  • Male: 80.82%
  • Female: 17.12%
  • Not known: 2.05%

Age using benefits

  • Oldest: 57
  • Youngest: 18
  • Average: 29