James Bright, a U.S. Army Veteran of three conflicts, sits in the newly opened Veterans Center on the Community College of Baltimore County’s (CCBC) Catonsville Campus talking with CCBC Administrative Assistant to the Center, Salley Hoover, when a student-veteran comes in and says he is having some personal issues.
The veteran says that the daughter of a friend who had been killed in action is asking what happened to her father. “What do I tell her?” he asks.
A situation such as this was the reason behind the creation of a place for veteran-students to interact with each other.
The Catonsville Veterans Center opened with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 8 where the launch of the Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) Initiative was announced.
During the ceremony, Dr. Jade Charles-Wolfman, a Veterans Affairs (VA) Maryland Health Care System Representative tasked with running the VITAL program at CCBC, said during the ceremony that the goal of VITAL was to help soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines “integrate” into their new roles as students, help them achieve a degree, and become successfully employed.
“[VITAL] lays on the premise that student-veterans have unique abilities and skills that truly make them leaders on the campus and in the community,” she said.
The VITAL Program provides a number of different services to student-veterans across all three CCBC campuses.
The first step for VITAL is to make an effort to reach out and connect with each and every student-veteran at CCBC and make him or her aware of the new services.
The second service provided is educational outreach. VITAL will connect with faculty, administrators, and staff to help them understand the unique abilities and situations student-veterans find themselves in, as well as what challenges they may face while interacting with veterans in the classroom.
One of the primary services being offered through VITAL is on-site mental health services for VA qualified student-veterans as part of a major effort to increase veteran access to mental health counseling.
The Veteran Center, which houses VITAL; is more than just a place to receive information about the VA’s services or to receive help through VITAL, there is a much deeper connection among the student-veterans.
Bright, who is also a student-veteran at CCBC, volunteers his time at the Center supporting other veterans as they make the transition from active duty to active student.
“This is a non-paying job,” Bright said. “It’s not about the money. We are doing this from our hearts. These guys are my brothers and I’m not going to let them fail when I have something I can offer them.”
Above the front entrance to the Veterans Center hangs a large banner that reads “For Veterans, By Veterans”, a concept that speaks volumes to student-veterans coming through the door.
“If you come home and you needed psychological counseling, if you were homeless, if you needed food, clothing, or shelter – We’ve all been there,” Bright said. “We can tell you where you need to go and what you need to do. That’s what for vets by vets means.”
During his speech at the ribbon cutting, David Glover, president of the Catonsville Veteran Student Association, spoke about how he had a lot of friends – they were just another world away, still in the military.
“I was discharged medically and since then I have struggled to find my place in the world,” he said. “It’s been a lonely exhausting journey and I felt like an outcast at times. This semester I found a place where I have many friends.”
VITAL, which is a national VA program, is located in only two schools in Maryland at this time, CCBC and Towson University.
“Our college is actually taking steps to make sure that we can support the many needs that [veterans] bring when [they] come back to us,” said CCBC President Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis during her comments during the ceremony. “I’m proud. We are absolutely committed to doing this right.”
Kurtinitis, whose son is in the Army, commented on an issue CCBC had with a veteran just two years prior and how far the school had come in providing support for its student-veterans.
In 2010 CCBC student-veteran Charles Whittington, Jr. wrote a controversial essay in his English class about his struggles returning home from combat that was then published in the college newspaper.
As a result Whittington was barred from campus due to concerns for the safety of the students and faculty. Message boards on the Internet were active at the news of Whittington being barred from the college.
“If we cared more about the psychological problems of returning combat veterans and devoted adequate resources to helping them… we might not be adding to their already damaged condition,” wrote one reader on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.
Journalism Professor, Jeremy Caplan said that it was the most stressful semester of his life and that he thought it was pretty amazing that something good, like the Veterans Center, came from such a difficult time.
The Veterans Center is poised to ensure the success of student-veterans in the classroom as well as making them feel comfortable on campus all the while helping them deal with their personal issues.
The veteran with the question about his friend’s daughter put his books down on the table and lent a hand to Ms. Hoover who was having difficulty operating the copy machine.
“What do I tell her?” he asked.
Bright leaning back in his chair listening nodded his head as he moved his cane from one hand to the other.
“The truth,” he said. “It’s going to be hard, but you’ve got to tell her the truth.”
by James P. McLaughlin
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