GPC speaks the language of active service and veteran students
By Beverly James
Navy Petty Officer Third Class Federico Ibarra, assigned as a corpsman to a Marine air unit, always dreamed of going to college. When the Georgia Perimeter College student isn’t running health tests for Marines on the Dobbins or Warner Robbins air bases, Ibarra is pursuing an associate degree in biology in hopes of one day becoming a pediatrician.
“I joined the Navy right out of high school because I couldn’t afford college and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” says Ibarra, 23. “The Navy recruiter called me and said joining the armed forces was another way of paying for college. So, I signed up.”
Once he started working as a medic for the Marines, Ibarra knew he wanted to go further and that meant going to college. Currently serving in the reserves, the GPC Educational Achievement Program Scholar takes a full load of classes at GPC’s Dunwoody Campus. He hopes to eventually return to active duty as an officer in the Navy after earning his medical degree.
“GPC’s Military Outreach initiatives are vital to my goals,” Ibarra says. “The Military Outreach program keeps me informed of ways I can get paid for going to college, of benefits and rights that I have as a member of the armed forces and how to stay focused on my education. They speak my language and understand my efforts to get an education.”
Boasting one of the largest military populations in the University System of Georgia and recently named a Yellow Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Defense, Georgia Perimeter College is expanding how it welcomes and supports military students.
“The Yellow Ribbon Program is a joint agreement with the Veterans Administration whereby GPC will make a contribution on behalf of the veteran and the VA
will match it in order to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees,” says GPC Military Outreach director Mark Eister.
Among other steps in its Military Outreach initiative, GPC has created a Military Outreach Center at its Clarkston Campus, opened resource centers at other GPC locations and created student groups to help military personnel adjust to college life.
Currently, Georgia Perimeter serves more than 800 current military, veterans and their family members. More than 416,000 service members registered for spring semester at colleges nationwide.
“Our goal with the Military Outreach initiative is to be military friendly, to offer the highest quality education at an affordable price to service members, veterans and their dependents,” says Eister, who visits military bases across the nation to discuss the educational opportunities GPC offers. “We want service members to know that they have a home at Georgia Perimeter; we will do our best to make the transition to college as smooth as possible.”
The GPC Military Outreach Center offers centralized services for veterans and their families, including financial aid, advising and counseling and Veterans Affairs benefits. The center also houses a military student advocate who dispenses academic advising to military/veteran students.
Students say they already see the benefits of the Military Outreach initiative.
“The military outreach centers provide scholarship help and direction and educate us about vet benefits, financial aid issues and ways to resolve them,” says Jeffrey Davis, a general studies major on Dunwoody Campus and a U.S. Army reservist. “If I know of any vets, I point them to the center on their campuses because the assistance is invaluable.”
The college also has created military awareness workshops for faculty and staff. “We want to increase the understanding of issues and challenges that military students face, so faculty and staff are better equipped to provide the best service possible,” Eister says.
Some faculty and staff already have stepped up to offer special assistance to military students.
Andrea Muresan was frantic when she approached her criminal justice professor, John Siler, last winter. Her military orders had been changed and she was
due to ship out to Afghanistan within a week with only two classes left to take in the upcoming spring semester. She had planned to graduate in May 2012.
“I was so worried and had no idea what I would do,” says the 22-year-old specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves. Luckily, Siler had the perfect solution—Muresan would take her last two classes online while in Afghanistan.
“I was nervous because I had never taken a class online before, but I really appreciated that Georgia Perimeter College was willing to work with me,” says Muresan, who came back to her home in Lawrenceville in July after spending eight months in Afghanistan driving postal trucks for the U.S. Army. While studying was difficult in Afghanistan—sometimes carried out by flashlight while sheltered in a bunker during rocket attacks—Muresan worked hard and succeeded.
On May 4, already a hot, humid night in Afghanistan, she proudly donned her black cap and gown. Through technology, the college had arranged for her to join the other almost 1,000 students graduating from Georgia Perimeter College.
Back home in Georgia, the afternoon crowd in GPC’s Clarkston Campus gymnasium roared its approval as a college staff member turned a television on the stage around to show Muresan being Skyped in from her duty station thousands of miles away.
After her brother walked on stage to accept a diploma on her behalf, Muresan wiped away tears and moved her tassel from the left side of her cap to the right. Her parents beamed proudly from their seats, unable to suppress their delight at seeing the petite soldier earn her associate degree in criminal justice.
“I can’t begin to put into words how excited and grateful I am that Georgia Perimeter worked with me to achieve my dream,” said Muresan. “This is the most wonderful day of my life and the beginning of a great future that all started here at GPC.”
Faculty and staff understand that helping Muresan and others like her to reach their goals is part of the college’s mission, Siler says. “We are honored to do our part for our service members, because at the end of the day, we want them to be successful.”
Another way GPC is reaching out to service members is by collaborating with the Shepherd Center in Atlanta to help military clients who have traumatic brain
injuries reach their educational goals. “We are working with Disability Services and the Office of Advising and Counseling to help ease their transition to the college,” Eister says. “While working closely with the Shepherd Center, we connect the student with the appropriate GPC staff and faculty members to help accommodate the unique needs of these veteran students, without compromising the integrity or rigor of the coursework.”
Eister’s staff also supports and advises student military outreach clubs and organizations, including Americorps and VETCOM.
AmeriCorps is a national organization that addresses critical needs in local communities. GPC’s AmeriCorps members are military/veteran students who offer advice, counsel and camaraderie to their fellow veteran students.
Jeffrey Davis is co-president of Dunwoody Campus’ VETCOM, a club for veterans that focuses on issues they face as students. “Our mission is to find vets on campus who need assistance as they go through school and who are willing to share their knowledge with other military personnel and family members,” he says. “The student groups are great because we speak the language of the military and understand what other students in our situation are going through.”
The Military Outreach Center is in the process of converting the VETCOM club to a national organization called SVA or Student Veterans of America. With its own SVA Chapter, the college will be able to offer expanded national resources, support and advocacy, even after graduation.
Support is available from other offices across Georgia Perimeter’s campuses as well. GPC’s Office of Career Services helps students translate their military experience into civilian language, and it offers workshops on interviewing, resume writing and how to dress for success.
“We want every one of our students to achieve success,” says Eister. “In that regard, we have created at GPC a supportive and nurturing environment for current and former military members and their families. We want them to know that our mission is to help them reach the goal of earning a college education.”