By John J. “Ski” Sygielski, MBA, Ed.D., president and CEO of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
Published in PennLive, Nov. 11, 2019
As we honor all those who served in our armed forces this Nov. 11, it is crucial to also serve our veterans by providing pathways to careers that align with their military service or prepare them for careers that are both rewarding and fulfilling.
When veterans leave the military service and head back to their hometowns across America, they are faced with the challenge of redefining who they are both as members of the local community and of the workforce. Many of those who served did so in combat specialties (infantry, tanks, artillery, etc.) that have little direct equivalency in the civilian workforce. Those currently serving in the National Guard and Reserves also face a lot of the same issues, since many of them deployed for long periods of time in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Higher education is one path that can assist our veterans in their journey to finding a career path to succeed in today’s workforce.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 37% of student veterans attend community colleges, the highest rate among institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, the bulk of research on veteran students focuses on first-time, full-time student veterans at four-year institutions. The reality is that most student veterans will start out at a community college, and many of those students will be attending part-time. At HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, 57% of veterans and 67% of those currently serving are attending part-time this semester.
Engaging these veteran students on campus can be a challenge because they are a unique group of students who have transitioned from a very structured, close-knit and team-oriented environment in the military to an unstructured environment, full of autonomy and difficult transitions. The loss of military self, along with losing peer support and many of the great responsibilities they had while serving can be difficult to overcome. While the average age of a HACC student is 26, the average age of a veteran student at HACC is 32. Many veteran students face redefining who they are as both citizens, as well as professionally, while supporting a family.
HACC proudly serves the second largest population of student veterans and dependents using veteran’s benefits in Pennsylvania with over 1,000 veterans and over 200 dependents during the 2018-19 academic year.
One of the ways HACC assists student veterans and their dependents using Veteran benefits is providing support through our Military and Veterans Affairs Offices (MVAO) on all five HACC campuses. These offices are staffed by veterans who are using or have previously used the GI Bill benefits. Not only does the MVAO help the student veterans figure out how to use their military education benefits, it also certifies them to the VA and directly funds their student accounts. This is important when there are six different GI Bills (that all have their own rules), Federal Tuition Assistance (FTA), and the National Guard Education Assistance Program (EAP), when students have questions or issues with their benefits.
In the past few years, HACC, a 2019-20 Military Friendly® School, has prioritized serving student veterans by participating in veteran-focused programs. For example, HACC is the only college in Pennsylvania participating in VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC), a federal program aimed at easing the transition to academic life for military veterans and their families by placing a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) counselor on designated college campuses. HACC was also the first community college in the nation to participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project, which offers workshops for student veterans transitioning into the classroom.
HACC also recently started a collegewide chapter of the Student Veterans of America, while also working to create more campus-based groups for students who are veterans or support veterans in higher education.
While we as a nation have made large strides in the past few years, more can be done to ensure this population will be successful in the transition from the battlefield to the workforce.
HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, is the first and largest of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges. HACC offers approximately 100 career and transfer associate degree, certificate and diploma programs to approximately 19,000 learners. Also, the College serves learners at its Gettysburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon and York campuses; through virtual learning; and via workforce development and continuing education training. For more information on how HACC is uniquely YOURS, visit hacc.edu. Also, follow us on Twitter (@HACC_info), follow us on Instagram (@HACC_edu), like us on Facebook (Facebook.com/HACC64) and use #HACCNews.