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California Community Colleges seek to strengthen veterans outreach

Xavier Higgs | 12/1/2010, 9:22 p.m.

Caught between budget restraints and a growing veteran population, California Community Colleges have committed to making veterans affairs one of its primary goals for the year.

Many veterans find it difficult to transition back into the mainstream population after returning from active military duty, particularly those returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

As the number of veterans increase, the California Community Colleges are developing and evaluating comprehensive collaborative support services to offer through business and community systems.

Bobby McDonald, a member of the California Board of Governors, said for the past 18 months they have tried to "connect the dots" in the community college system for veterans.

He adds, "As a military guy, you look for that combat information center."

To address the concerns of vets attending California community colleges, a first-time conference entitled "Veterans: The Community College's Best Kept Secret" was recently convened in Pasadena to coordinate and provide information about current support services.

Additionally, the Board of Governors of the community colleges, in an effort to better meet the needs of veterans, particularly female veterans, will take their message to the California Department of Veterans and the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.

Tracy Cooper Harris, student at Cal State Northridge, attended the event because she heard there was going to be state officials speaking about veteran's programs.

"The reintegration of veterans back into the community is something that is near and dear to me as a veteran, because I have friends who are in theaters of combat or coming home," said Harris. She believes most will have problems transitioning, and Harris wants to take the knowledge she gained and assist those who are trying to work their way through the system.

Harris is typical of those veterans who find themselves in search of ways to integrate back into society through the community college system. She admits her transition back into civilian life was difficult.

Just after returning from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, she worked for the Veterans Administration.

"I was in a daze. It was hard to reintegrate," said Harris. "I couldn't hold on to a job to save my life. Some of the stories you would hear over the phone were heartbreaking and it was too much too soon for me to handle. I am in counseling, and I'm getting better."

According to the 2009 figures from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS), which collects and analyzes data related to Veterans, there are 23 million veterans in this country, California has two million veterans. Women account for 8 percent of that total.

While at the conference, Sara Manzano Diaz, Director of the Women's Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor said "we are trying to raise awareness that women veterans have unique problems and to give them a voice in their own words, and make people aware."

An estimated 34,000 servicemen and women will return to California by the end of this year, and while 75 percent of those veterans who chose to take advantage of the GI bill will be attending college.

As a result, community colleges throughout the state have boosted efforts to strengthen resources offered to returning veterans even with limited funding.