SCCC veterans programs vital

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It isn’t always easy for veterans to re-adjust to civilian life.

Joseph McDonald served in the United States Marine Corps and is now a veteran completing degrees in both Automotive and Criminal Justice at Sussex County Community College.

Thanks to the college’s Change of Mission Program, veterans like McDonald receive help transitioning from military service to a college setting. SCCC has proudly assisted veterans, activity duty personnel, and their dependents personnel with their education since 1982, and the program has built and thrived.

For McDonald, SCCC’s programs for veterans have been vital.

He went into the Corps at age 20 as a 011, an Administrative Specialist. He was discharged early due to a degenerative disease in his spine which caused chronic back pain. It wasn’t until almost two years later that he got out into the community and started attending classes.

“Veterans when they get out of the service are ‘lost’ in a sense, they become so used to a certain way of living, sleeping next to people who would give their lives for each other, and to be thrown back into the civilian world there’s a massive adjustment period,” McDonald said. “I was lost as well, trying to find my way back into the groove of civilian life, and that’s when it dawned on me automotive was my way. It was my therapy when I was discharged as I was depressed, anxious, and weary of my own future. Automotive was my niche and I love working on cars, that’s what I did when I was discharged and have been since.”

McDonald is projecting to graduate in fall of 2020.

“The most important thing I believe SCCC offers to veterans is community,” he said. “I don’t really know how to explain it to a civilian who has not walked in those boots, but it’s that sense of brotherhood, knowing someone around you has walked that walk, been where you’ve been, and will have your back no matter what. The veteran community at Sussex is big. Especially Jon Finocchiaro, the SCCC Veterans Services Coordinator, who helps all the veterans. He himself is a veteran and he’s helped me so much during my time here and I’m sure with all the other veterans.”

Regarding the transition, McDonald said, “Most veterans in a typical classroom style class it’s just in one ear and out the other, we prefer to be hands on, I mean think about it, during our service we haven’t been in a typical classroom anywhere between four to 20 years so it’s definitely not for everyone, but the hands on aspect that Jason Fruge (the coordinator for the college’s automotive education program) offers is really phenomenal and that goes in hand with the therapy I have of working on cars. It’s truly the best of both worlds.”

The Veteran’s Program at SCCC is committed to providing veterans with quality assistance and guidance throughout their academic career. The Veteran Services Office has a dedicated staff member who works personally with veterans to help them navigate and maximize VA benefits. The college’s Advising and Counseling Center provides a range of services from academic advising to free personal counseling. The Office of the Bursar is dedicated to providing professional and quality service to the students, faculty, staff, parents and the community. They support the Veteran Services Office. The Financial Aid Office is dedicated to helping all students take advantage of resources that may be available. They encourage veterans, as well as the dependents of deceased or disabled veterans, to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In addition to veteran benefits, veterans may also be eligible for federal student aid — Federal Pell Grant and Direct Student loan. The Student Veteran Emergency Relief fund offers short term financial assistance to veterans and their families who experience financial hardship as a result of an emergency situation. Grants are provided on behalf of applicants who qualify.

Finocchiaro is the Veteran Services Coordinator at SCCC who served in the United States Navy on active duty for four years.

“As far as transition is concerned, I think that there is an undeniable change in the social and career elements of a person’s life during the shift from a period military service to ‘civilian life,’” he said. “I wouldn’t say that mine was particularly interesting, but it did lead me to my position at SCCC. While I was in school there, I learned a lot about VA Education Benefits through the VA Work/Study Program. With the new knowledge I had, I started helping the other vets on campus navigate the use of their own VA education benefits. Eventually the position at SCCC opened up, and I was lucky enough to have the technical knowledge when it did.”

Finocchiaro said, “Facilitating a successful transition for veterans is really a campus wide effort, and we recognize that at SCCC. Each office is engaged and aware of this effort, and comes together to support our student veterans. We do consolidate our services for veterans in to one office, the Veteran Services Office. A single point of contact on campus is something that our veterans regularly applaud. It helps to streamline things and demystify the academic process.”

He added, “We also have created an emergency relief fund for our veterans, dubbed the SVER (Student Veteran Emergency Relief fund). This acts as a safety net and allow us to provide short term financial assistance, should one of our student veterans fall on hard times. Knowing that there is something there to catch them provides peace of mind during times of transition.”

When it comes to the most popular areas of study that veterans choose, Finocchiaro said that Liberal Arts and Criminal Justice have traditionally been the most popular.

“There has been a huge spike in interest with the addition and revamping of the trade programs at SCCC,” Finocchiaro said. “LI wouldn’t be surprised if veteran enrollment in the trade programs became the number one area of study for out student veterans in a few years’ time.”

Jason Fruge is the Program Supervisor for Automotive, Welding, Building Construction, and Machine Tool Technology at SCCC.

Of the college Fruge said, “SCCC was an opportunity for me to get involved in education (while in automotive industry) to help meet the needs of the constant demand for skilled techs. Being a combat vet, transition was difficult. trade for me, specifically automotive, helped to fill the voids left from service. Fast past industry, constant training, and self education, as well as simple ‘shop camaraderie.’”

Dr. Jon Connolly, the president of Sussex County Community College, said, “Skills and wills and minds come together through our programs for veterans. All humans deserve meaningful occupations and the hands on learning and support for our veterans is an important part of the college.”

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