by Katherine Noll
November 14, 2013
"On average about 500 veterans are honorably discharged every day. That means one million new veterans in 5 years," Mike Sparrow, veteran, NCC alumnus, and current director of the Learning Center, told a standing-room-only audience on November 14.
Is Northampton Community College prepared to serve their needs? To answer that, the experts were brought in. Student veterans spoke about their educational journey at NCC at a panel discussion, with Sparrow as the moderator.
The panelists were: Aaron Andresen, U.S. Air Force; Christopher DiBella, U.S. Army; John Rivera, U.S. Navy; and Brian Smith, U.S. Army. All are members of the Band of Brothers Club, a student organization for men and women who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces of the United States.
What obstacles or challenges do you face at NCC?
"You're going to be challenged every day no matter where you're at, but you can use your military background to face those challenges," Smith said.
As older students, trying to relate to their 18 year-old fellow students can be a challenge. "When I was 19, I was overseas. I lost friends. For them, it's like 'Dude, I just failed my math test.' They just don't understand, but you can't get upset because they haven't had the same experiences," DiBella shared.
Andresen sees the younger students as a positive. "We're learning the exact same thing, sitting in the same row. But they are looking to me for answers. I see myself as a mentor."
How has NCC provided support?
"Band of Brothers helped me adjust. It's great to be with people I can bond and relate to," said Rivera. Andresen agreed.
"This school is dedicated to making sure all students, not just guys like us, are 110% prepared when we sit in the classroom the first time," DiBella said.
Smith grew emotional during his response. "I can't express what this school has done to support me. They have stood by me in all aspects of my life."
When asked how he would rate student services for veterans on a scale of 1 to 10, Smith replied, "10 times infinity! If I can't talk to someone in my family about school I can go to so many people here and get answers."
Barring any expense, what one improvement would you make at NCC for student veterans?
"Seek out other veterans who may be in the shadows," Andresen encouraged the faculty and staff in attendance. "I know some young G.I.s who think their job wasn't important enough because they weren't overseas or in harm's way. But every single past, present, and future military member gives us what we have. We need to support every vet."
Smith envisions a dorm for homeless veterans who want to attend college. "I was homeless myself once," he shared. "I stayed at Victory House (a homeless shelter for men in Bethlehem) before I got my own place. Some vets will say to me, 'Brian, I wish I could be where you're at.' We need to remove the stigma of being homeless."
Rivera also experienced homelessness after his service. "30% of homeless people are veterans. I was one of them. I lost everything. I lived in my car. It's a shame we have to go through so much red tape to get help. I shut down; it was hard for me to reach out. It's instilled in us in the military not to ask questions."
A cloning machine topped DiBella's wish list. "There's only one Diana [Holva, NCC veteran affairs assistant]. Can you make two more of her? If there were several Dianas, we'd be set!"
Do you view yourself as a normal student?
"Normal is not defined in our vocabulary," Smith laughed.
"Unique would be a better word," Rivera added.
How should faculty/staff view vets?
As a part of their successful classroom, DiBella said. "When you do introductions on the first day of class, each student is a necessary piece of what's going to make the semester successful. Everybody, student or veteran, brings something to the table."
"Write vets into your syllabus," Rivera suggested. "Have students team up with a veteran for an assignment. Why wait until Veterans Day or 9/11?"
Why is the Band of Brothers so drawn to community service?
"I don't want my adult life to be in vain. Helping someone is our job. I feel like when we stop doing it, that's when life is going to get hard for us," DiBella admitted. "Out of 40 residents at Victory House, 29 are veterans. We want to be a valued piece of the community, and for people to know the Band of Brothers Club will always help."
When asked to share parting words, Rivera wanted people to understand who a veteran really is. "We're not all about homelessness and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Stigmas stick."
Andresen encouraged people to learn more about PTSD. "It's a real disease but it shouldn't hold any of us back."
"Their service and mission continues at NCC and beyond," Sparrow said of the student veterans. "We should view them as a civic asset. Reintegration of veterans is not a problem; it's an opportunity to welcome veterans and their unique skill sets back to make a better America."
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