Veterans find support at Sierra College

Navigating return to school can be ?overwhelming?
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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With the U.S. army reporting a planned reduction in forces of 80,000 soldiers over the next six years, Catherine Morris knows that many of those veterans and more from the reduction in forces will end up in community college. But after trading in their combat boots for books, these servicemen and women face unique challenges during their college education. Morris, Sierra College?s veterans counselor, has made it her mission to help the school?s more than 600 veterans navigate through returning to school successfully. With large amounts of paperwork to claim the GI Bill, along with transitioning back into civilian life, Morris said the process can be overwhelming. After serving in three branches of the military before going back to school to earn her bachelor?s and master?s degrees, Morris personally understands just how hard that transition can be. ?You have been out of high school and the education system so long, coming into the college environment is really intimidating and a lot of us vets weren?t necessarily college-bound in high school and didn?t necessarily take college prep courses,? Morris said. Through grassroots support, Sierra College has been able to create a small relaxation room, snack shack and study area for the veteran population. Morris and student workers help the veterans with the basics of enrollment and claiming benefits and provide emotional support, too. But as the number of veterans on campus increases, so will the need from community support. While the college has been able to give some shared space to the program and is supportive, it doesn?t have the budget to expand it. For many veterans, the veterans resource center is an escape when the toll of returning from combat becomes too much. Post traumatic stress disorder causes veterans to have to leave class if a loud noise goes off. That?s when many of them retreat to the relaxation room or do their homework in the small computer area. ?It?s a form of staying alive. In a sense there are changes in the brain chemicals to be on hyper-vigilance,? Morris said. ?It?s a way to keep them alive and just because you come home doesn?t mean your brain shuts that off right away.? Finding a place to call home on campus For Jake Chavez, who began attending Sierra College in 2010, being a former Marine has given him strengths and weaknesses in college. In high school he had a 2.5 GPA, while today he boasts a 3.6. He said the structure of the military helped him learn how to set his priorities, but inevitably parts of him have changed, too. The unit he served with in his first tour to Iraq was hit with an explosive. On his second tour, he said they had another incident. He recovered from both incidents, but after spending three birthdays in Iraq decided not to re-enlist. At school, sometimes he can feel disconnected because his experiences are different than many of his classmates. ?Coming to college, it?s like young kids and everything, fresh out of high school,? Chavez said. ?I?m in my mid 20s and you have kids that are 18-19 years old and the only experience they have is what they did at a party last night.? Chavez has also been able to get assistance with anger management classes and likes knowing other veterans are available to talk through things with. Rebuilding a life after returning from war Jay Blake, 38, of Auburn, said he owes much of his college success to the veterans program. After being honorably discharged from the military with 11 years and several honors behind him, he faced alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder and his wife choosing to separate from him with their children. In the midst of all of those variables, he was starting school again. ?Getting good grades ? it?s actually pretty challenging to do it when you have so much turmoil going on in other parts of your life,? Blake said. His first couple of semesters were difficult, but after going through alcoholics anonymous and getting help from the veterans program, he has been able to rebuild his life. ?With the support academically and then the support in the personal parts of my life from the program here at Sierra College, I have been able to pretty much pick it up,? Blake said. ?I am on the Dean?s list this semester. I am trying to work out my marriage and redevelop my relationship with my children and my wife.? Morris said Blake?s story represents one of many more just like it. Blake added that he hopes to help other veterans with his story. ?I run into so many veterans who are in the same position, alcohol abuse, or worse, but at the same time that?s not the direction they want their life to go in,? Blake said. ?That is a lot of the process veterans have to do- rebuild their lives from scratch.? Reach Sara Seyydin at, or follow her on Twitte