Active duty and military veterans entering college for the first time or after several years away from college courses often find themselves confronted with the same mountain of paperwork required of any college applicant.
When the Beaufort campus of Technical College of the Lowcountry opened its Veterans Resource Center on Nov. 11, 2015, the whole goal was to make college enrollment for both active duty and veterans a smooth process.
Christina Welsch-Copeland, the Veteran Student Services coordinator, said the center has been a big hit and already has helped more than 300 active duty service members, veterans and retirees get ahead in college.
Salina Bowen is one of those veterans. The Dallas native and Marine Corps veteran worked in distribution while on active duty, spending 12 years in the Corps – including a tour in Iraq and training as a drill instructor at Parris Island. After badly injuring a knee, Bowen left the Marines and looked at the future.
“I want to be the first in my family to be successful in the military and to get a degree,” said Bowen, who stopped into the Center between classes. “I’m getting my general credits here to transfer. I plan to go to a major university, but after 12 years in the military you might as well start with baby steps.”
She is attending TCL on her path to a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a master’s in occupational therapy. Going through the VRC helped her key in on her goals and get started.
“Part of what I do is help veterans with their admissions process, figure out their financial aid and if they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with their courses, I help them with their courses,” said Welsch-Copeland.
For many college students, parents were the ones who filled out the forms for high school transcripts, financial aid and a myriad of other requirements, leaving the written essay to their student.
“The military path is a little harder,” said Welsch-Copeland. “For example, if you came in as a veteran, and you wanted to use your GI Bill, not only do you apply but you don’t live right down the street. You can’t go get your high school transcript. You have to contact them and have them mail that in.”
The same is true for those who have attended colleges while serving at different duty stations, said Welsch-Copeland, who spent eight years in the Army and earned her MBA through the University of Maryland.
“A lot of people in the military have been to three or four colleges. They need to contact each of those colleges and have each transcript sent in,” she said. “The next step is the GI Bill, and that is a process. Getting into college is not significantly different from that right out of high school, but there are a lot more steps involved.”
Some students go through vocational rehabilitation so they’re on a completely different path, she said.
“It’s almost like after World War II the amount of veterans getting out and going to school. It’s a significant population,” said Welsch-Copeland, “and a lot of them are dealing with issues we don’t know about, like PTSD, different stressors in their lives and service dogs. There are a lot of wounds. And part of what I do is be an advocate for them, help them understand that they have a voice, they don’t have to stop at the first ‘no’.”
The center is more than a place to get help with college enrollment. It’s a gathering place complete with computers for vets to use, a supply of coffee, tea and snacks and a place to swap stories as well as get help with issues relating to veterans.
For more information on the Veterans Resource Center, go to www.tcl.edu/military-programs/veterans-resource-center or call 843-535-8264 or 800-768-8252.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.