It’s just past one o’clock on Tuesday afternoon at CCV Newport. Students are at work in the Learning Center, instructors are beginning the day’s lessons, and staff goes about handling the logistics of day-to-day life at the College. This would be a typical day at the center, save for what’s going on in the corner classroom that looks out over Lake Memphremagog.
“This class helps me learn from my experiences instead of just dwelling on them,” says Matthew Hayes. “I had no idea that was going to be the effect of it. I expected to go in there and draw pictures and do art stuff. I did not expect the healing powers of the class.”
The class is Lynn Berry’s Visual Arts course, and Hayes isn’t a typical student. Rather, the 29-year-old Vermonter is a father of four, an aspiring mathematics teacher, and a former 11 Bravo. Translated into civilian lingo, he was an Army Infantry Soldier who completed multiple combat tours in Iraq.
Hayes, who is the picture of an elite military operative—he stands well over six feet tall, keeps his hair cut high and tight, and dons fatigues regularly—left the military in 2011 and began at CCV shortly thereafter. He decided to take a drawing class because he says he’s got a “knack for art,” but what he found was more than just an outlet for creativity and a way to earn credits.
“Lynn’s class helps me to not forget what happened, but it also helps me deal with what’s happened. It helps me move on from what happened, and it helps me to be a better person because of what’s happened,” Hayes said. “Lynn just makes you feel so comfortable; I’ve never seen an agitated face in one of her classes, ever. I’ve never even seen her have an agitated look.”
What’s more remarkable is that he isn’t alone in his assessment of the class. As Hayes washes sumi-e ink over watercolor paper, across the room thirty-four-year-old Adam Guyette is intently focused on a folded paper project he’s working on. Guyette spent eight years serving in Iraq and other locations around the globe as an Air Force staff sergeant. A photographer, drawer, and all-around artist, Guyette said Berry’s class has had a similar effect on him.
“Soldiers who have suffered a lot, or Airman or Marines or Navy people, they don’t discuss it, so this is an outlet for their emotions,” Guyette said. “Anyone who knew me when I first came back from Iraq noticed that I was pretty jumpy. To this day, I’m not as bad as I was, but loud noises kind of set me off a little. I wouldn’t say I’ve been diagnosed with anything, post-traumatic or whatnot, but the class does help calm me, you know, it is very relaxing.”
Getting Services After the ServiceAdam Guyette works on a folded paper project at CCV Newport. Photo by Josh Larkin[/caption]Neither Guyette nor Hayes credit the therapeutic effects of education as being a driving force for enrolling at CCV after military life; Hayes wants to teach and Guyette wants to work in a medical field. But both acknowledge that they needed degrees to move forward, and they both said that CCV’s veterans’ services made the transition to college life much easier for them.
“What helped me is that our financing officer, Lauren, is a veteran herself and is very versed in G.I. benefits and things of that nature, so it actually made the system quite streamlined,” Guyette said. “She knew how to help us, how to get us in the system and to establish ourselves. To be honest, I think if we had someone without that background, it probably would have delayed or made it longer for us to get in because with any sort of government system or program it’s a lot of paperwork, it’s a lot of waiting around. It’s bureaucracy basically.”
Enter Chara Vincelette, the College’s resource advisor for veterans.
“There’s so much that’s available to veterans, but it’s so confusing,” Vincelette said. “So I’m kind of like that hub of ‘hey have you thought of this, or have you heard of this nonprofit, or have you met with this organization?’”
Sitting in her office at CCV St. Albans, Vincelette motions to the wall alongside her desk. Taped and tacked to the wall are business cards, fliers, phone numbers, notes and information on just about any service a person could need. Essentially, if a veteran needs help with something, Vincelette knows where to find it, or whom to talk to in order to get the ball rolling.
It’s all part of an extensive system of support for military connected students (MCS—veterans, spouses, children of military personnel—which the College has been constructing for years now, Vincelette said. At the heart of the system are the advisors—each of the College’s twelve academic centers has an advisor specifically tasked with assisting MCS along their college path. Vincelette oversees their work, but the process for all MCS really begins with her.
According to Vincelette once an MCS has applied, they immediately receive a message from her asking them to contact her. From there, she starts by giving them an overview of all the benefits available to them and checking in to make sure they have what they need to be successful on all fronts. Once the benefit paperwork is underway Vincelette makes a personal hand-off to the student’s local advisor at their center, all of whom work directly with MCS so they get what they need.
“They all facilitate together like this,” Hayes says, snapping his fingers in a staccato burst. “It’s rapid. If something’s not coming down the pike fast enough, CCV is always willing to wait and work with us veterans until the paperwork gets squared away. They’re very flexible as far as that goes.”
And Vincelette is never completely out of the picture—all MCS know that if they ever need further assistance with an issue, she’s just a phone call or email away.
“We are all about student success,” Vincelette said. “You don’t even have to graduate from CCV to be successful. We want to help you with your academic success. It’s kind of like that one team, one fight philosophy, and I love that.”
And she is one of the team; she’s racked up just shy of twenty years in the Army National Guard, nine of which were full-time positions that included two tours, one in Afghanistan and one in Senegal. She’s currently a captain and is quick to acknowledge that her service life fosters a certain degree of trust from her students and it’s also given her a deep understanding of how the system works.
“I speak their language so to speak. If there’s an issue, I know the background. I know the culture,” she said. “And I love being able to help them, because I had help when I got my degree, and I wouldn’t have done it if someone hadn’t helped me.”
Becoming a Veteran Friendly Institution
In late January the numbers were in, and they again showed what Vincelette knew: that CCV was connecting with MCS more than ever before. The spring 2013 registration data confirmed that with just under 400 MCS enrolled at the College, CCV had seen its eighth-straight semester of increased MCS enrollment. More and more, Vincelette said, veterans and their families were hearing the message that education can help, that benefits are available, and that CCV is ready to assist.In the fall of 2009 CCV had 128 MCS enrolled in courses around the state. That semester was the first time the College had begun tracking student enrollment based on their military-connected status. Up to that point, CCV’s assistant registrar, Mary Ellen Lowe, had learned to navigate the Veterans Administration (VA) bureaucracy and was advising MCS on how to obtain benefits and attend school. According to Executive Dean Susan Henry, Lowe had come from a military family and had developed an expertise in veterans advising in the years following 9-11.
“Mary Ellen really became our expert in veteran advising, so much so that the Vermont National Guard would call her when they had questions about education benefits,” Henry said. “So we actually had a fair amount of expertise in that field, but what we didn’t have was the outreach part of the program, and Chara has really taken that to the next level.”
Henry said that in 2010, with Lowe planning on retiring, 1,400 deployed Vermont National Guard soldiers slated to return home from Afghanistan – the largest deployment since World War II – and state and national unemployment rates for veterans climbing, the College knew that a critical situation was fast approaching.
The solution came in the form of grants from the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, Bari and Peter Dreissigacker, and the Vermont Community Foundation. The funding would be used to create a formalized program of enhanced services for military families at CCV. Essentially the plan was for CCV to serve as a hub, the place returning soldiers and their family members could turn to for assistance in learning about veterans’ benefits. Part of that plan was to have advisors at all twelve of the College’s academic centers, and the other part was to hire a part-time Student Outreach Coordinator for Veterans.
At the same time, but on the other side of the globe “riding around in helicopters” in Afghanistan, Vincelette was researching ways to educate veterans and had come up with the idea for a course designed for veterans and taught by veterans. As she recalls, it was like serendipity when a friend let her know that CCV was looking for a veterans’ benefits advisor.
“I was going to start shopping for colleges to say ‘hey, based on the research at other schools that have done similar transition seminars, the retention rates are about thirty-eight percent higher at schools that offer something like this.’” Vincelette said. “That was my initial idea. I didn’t think that I’d be doing resource advising. I wanted to go out to colleges and teach Combat to Classroom, with this really cool idea that you have a veteran teach it, and it’s only open to veterans.”In February of 2011 Vincelette took up her new post at CCV St. Albans, approved for twenty hours per week to advise veterans. That situation lasted all of three months, when the College and Vincelette realized there was way too much that needed to be done in very little time. In June of that year she was moved to full-time status to craft the foundations of a program that offers MCS-specific publications, comprehensive one-on-one VA and Department of Defense benefits advising, assistance with applying for benefits, transfer of benefits, financial aid and scholarships, academic planning, training for faculty and staff about MCS, and a host of other MCS-specific services.
Although the position began with outreach and advising, Vincelette didn’t give up her dream of educating veterans. In February 2012 CCV ran a pilot course called Combat to Classroom based on Vincelette’s research and also taught by Vincelette. The one-credit course, designed to help veterans transition into academia, now runs each semester at multiple locations around the state and boasts an eighty-four percent college retention rate for those who complete the class.
“Veterans as a whole are not proactive about getting assistance. Sometimes it’s just so overwhelming that they don’t know where to start,” Vincelette said, noting that Combat to Classroom is a good place for veterans to begin their academic careers. “This is your life, but we are going to help you every step of the way. And we do surveys at the end of every semester, and the message we get back is that most students are just awestruck at how helpful the class was.”
It’s those reactions, along with the collection of services offered geared specifically towards MCS, that has earned the College a spot on GI Jobs’ list of Military Friendly Schools for 2013. Vincelette smiles about the listing, says it’s great, but is adamant that she and CCV are not doing this to make it onto lists, but to help veterans.
“I try to help them understand that they’re not going to be in the military forever,” Vincelette said. “The reality is that Uncle Sam will provide for you up to a point, but your education is something that can never be taken away from you and will only help you down the road.”
Leaning back in his chair at CCV Newport, Hayes says the help he’s received from just about everyone at CCV has made a huge difference.
“Everything about the process runs really smoothly,” he said. “Todd Gratton, who works here, also helps out tremendously; I believe he’s a veteran as well. I give a lot of credit to that gentleman. He’s been essential to my transition.”
But Hayes, who plans on finishing up his associate degree and then entering into Johnson State College’s External Degree Program, still comes back to the one thing that’s left a mark on him since starting at CCV:
“The teacher is the most important part of the class,” he says.
Taking a break from his latest pen and ink drawing, Guyette says the entire process from enrollment to actually attending classes has been filled with friendly and helpful people from CCV. But he’s also quick to return to the topic of Lynn Berry’s class and how it’s made a difference in his post-military life.
“I enjoy all three of the classes I’m enrolled in very much; I have great teachers, great classmates,” Guyette says. “But I do look forward to taking art more than the others at least a little, because it is relaxing, it’s… I don’t want to say therapeutic, but that’s the only thing that comes to mind. It helps.”