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Contra Costa, Alameda college campuses carve out space for veteran resource centers

 

By Sam Richards from the Contra Costa Times:

 

A San Ramon-based nonprofit is working with local businesses and the Contra Costa Community College District to set up spaces on four local college campuses where veterans who've come back to school can gather, learn or simply get away for a little while.

 

The Student Veterans Resource Centers will be designed to offer transition from military service to civilian life and into higher education and new careers.

 

The centers are coming to Los Medanos College in Pittsburg and Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill late this year, and to the Contra Costa College campus in San Pablo in Fall 2016. Another center is expected to open at the College of Alameda within the next several weeks, said Mike Conklin, CEO and board chairman of the Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship Fund.

 

There should be ready demand. The three Contra Costa campuses are hosting 660 veterans this semester taking advantage of the GI Bill payments for secondary education, and others are attending without benefit of those payments.

 

The first center backed by Sentinels of Freedom opened at San Francisco State in 2012; PG&E was the lead benefactor with that project, Conklin said. His group's main task since forming in 1988 was offering scholarships to returning soldiers with serious battle injuries requiring rehabilitation, and finding them homes and jobs to help with the transition back to civilian life.

 

"These older students don't necessarily connect well with students who've just come out of high school, and we want to help keep them from dropping out," Conkline said. He approached the college district board earlier this year, telling the trustees that if they could provide space, he would find the money to equip, operate and maintain the centers. The board supported that vision.

 

Ray Pyle, chief facilities planner for the college district, said new planned buildings will include space for veterans' centers, likely to be open by late 2016. In the meantime, the Pleasant Hill and Pittsburg campuses will open temporary centers in existing buildings, with the first -- at Diablo Valley -- expected to open in November.

 

Conklin, meanwhile, made good on the resources promise. PG&E, Lennar Homes, Anvil Builders of San Francisco, the Dahlin Group (Pleasanton-based architects), San Jose-based Engeo and Newport-based nonprofit HomeAid have pledged money ($50,000 needed per center) or services to help the centers get off the ground. Conklin expects more businesses to come on board soon.

 

"It's pretty simple -- businesses want good employees coming out of college, and this should help veterans do better in school and on into careers," he said.

 

For his own degree dissertation, Los Medanos President Bob Kratochvil did a survey of the needs of college veterans, asking what they needed to succeed at college. The top answer: a place for vets to gather and help one another.

 

"And thanks to Sentinels of Freedom, we'll have money that wouldn't have been available from the general fund," Kratochvil said.

 

Pyle, a 20-year Navy veteran himself, said he can attest to the need for the centers, and that it's an "almost personal issue" with him. While still in active service, he went back to college in 1991 to finish his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Oklahoma. There was a veterans center there.

 

"It was great to be able to share my experiences with kids who were going through the ROTC program, or getting ready to," Pyle said.

 

Also having personal experience with these centers is Brian Vargas, of Antioch, who as a Diablo Valley student did a report about veterans on that campus. What he found, he said, was many veterans but little sense of community among them. Now a senior at UC Berkeley, Vargas is a member of the Cal Veterans Group, which has its own dedicated center on campus.

 

"It's an ideal place to develop that sense of community," said Vargas, who received a Purple Heart for injuries he received in Iraq in 2007. He also is part of the Sentinels of Freedom program.

 

He said he is confident that vet centers like the one at UC Berkeley can bring the same benefits to the Contra Costa campuses. "I hope I can be part of this, at the DVC center, at least," he said.

 

Contact Sam Richards at 925-943-8241.