When Brooklyn native Larry Rivera returned to civilian life in 2013, he was uncertain about his future. He had just completed 10 years in the U.S. Army that included three deployments to Afghanistan where he was injured during combat. After a short stint in Florida where he worked as a landscaper at a golf course, Rivera moved back to New York City.
“Landscaping didn’t work out because of my disabilities. I have back problems and chronic headaches,” he said.
A few months later, while working as an armed security guard, Rivera crossed paths with a fellow veteran who reminded him about the educational benefits he is entitled to as a vet. Rivera, who wanted to earn a degree so he could work in property management, found his way to the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Veterans Resource Center (VRC).
“From getting my GI Bill benefits to the college application process, I never experienced customer service like I did here,” said Rivera, who is now a Liberal Arts major at BMCC.
Service persons, veterans, their dependents and survivors are eligible for Veterans Administration (VA) education benefits. Vets who are interested in attending BMCC can take advantage of the one-stop services provided by the BMCC Veterans Resource Center.
Rivera is one of more than 460 student veterans at BMCC who have utilized the services of the BMCC Veterans Resource Center. “I would put the services and support we provide to our student veterans up against any college, said Michael Hutmaker, Dean for Student Affairs, BMCC. “The coordination of services organized by the Veterans Resource Center helps us support the largest student veteran population in CUNY.”
“Our first mission is to assist and help veterans transition from military to campus and college life,” said Wilfred Cotto, Student Life Specialist for Veterans Services in the Office of Student Affairs at BMCC. “The Veterans Resource Center is the point of entry. We walk them through the entire process, including applying for college and VA educational benefits.”
Cotto says the Center also provides vets with a supportive environment during their time as students. That includes support groups and volunteer opportunities with organizations such as Wounded Warrior Project, as well as access to counseling and membership in the Organization of Student Veterans (Veterans Club).
“And keeping with the BMCC motto, ‘Start here, Go Anywhere’, by the third or fourth semester, we start to work on next steps for the vet, whether it be transferring to a four-year college or career opportunities,” said Cotto.
Current BMCC Veterans Club President and Liberal Arts major Stephanie Lopez arrived at BMCC after being told she didn’t meet academic prerequisite requirements for enrollment at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Lopez says the initial experience left her frustrated, but she eventually found her way to BMCC and its Veterans Resource Center.
“A Veterans Resource Center volunteer walked me to admissions and stayed with me through my advisement sessions, helping me navigate the entire registration process,” said Lopez, who spent four years in the U.S Army as a military police officer in Korea.
Lopez says student veterans often show up at the VRC frustrated by the registration or enrollment process. But once they get through that brief hurdle, there are plenty of activities and support services the Center offers. These include a specialized orientation seminar and a big dinner to introduce newcomers. The VRC also coordinates meditation groups, a vet chat meeting and fitness camps in the workout center.
A number of veterans also engage in ongoing advocacy for veteran’s benefits, such as housing, says Lopez, who recently landed an apartment in New Jersey and helped several other BMCC veterans secure apartments in the same building. In January, a group of BMCC student veterans met with New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich to talk about difficulties student veterans encounter when they apply for apartments and present as income, their Basic Allowance for Housing, part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“Vets also come to the Veterans Resource Center just to be social, have lunch or do homework,” said Lopez, who graduates from BMCC in Spring 2017 and plans to transfer to John Jay College of Criminal Justice and pursue a career in federal law enforcement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Marshalls.
VRC volunteer Angela Eilers is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. A Science major, Eilers spent five years working in the retail sector before enrolling at BMCC. She says the VRC staff and volunteers helped her obtain her benefits, and she works there now as part of BMCC’s Federal Work-Study Program.
“The Veterans Resource Center provides a major support network. The student veterans help one another with tutoring, too. I’m different since it was my Dad and not me, who was in the military, but I understand what they go through when they come out,” said Eilers, who plans to study nursing and someday work for a Veterans Administration hospital.
Student veteran Larry Rivera calls veterans “a special breed,” and says that while much learning takes place in the classroom, the VRC is also a learning center.
“We learn from each other and help each other function on a day-to-day basis. Society oftentimes doesn’t understand what we’ve been through.”