NORWALK, Conn. -- Norwalk Community College is making it easier for returning veterans to succeed in college and get back in the workforce by launching a new program just for them.
NCC is the only college in Connecticut to sign a full memorandum of understanding with the federal Veterans Health Administration to offer the Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) program on campus for students who are veterans.
VITAL is a new initiative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans succeed in college and to inform them of VA benefits, programs and resources.
Veterans who interrupted their education to serve find it difficult to transition to college life, said Scott Smith, a Veterans Service Associate at Norwalk Community College who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq.
"Whether you served in a war zone or pushed papers, going from a high speed military lifestyle to civilian life requires slowing down and learning to prioritize, since there is no one to report to (anymore),” Smith said in a statement.
NCC is the first school in Connecticut with the VITAL program. It focuses on several areas, including the transition from being a service member to being a veteran; academic leadership and empowerment; and reducing or eliminating stigmas about military service.
Its mission is to provide world-class healthcare and improve the overall mental health of student veterans, while supporting their successful integration into college and university campuses with seamless access to VA healthcare services and on-campus clinical counseling.
NCC offers veterans free tuition and a wide range of services to help them succeed academically and achieve their life goals. It has set up a Veterans Lounge where veteran students can study or relax, spend time with friends, or meet with a VITAL counselor to help cope with the adjustments.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, student veterans are growing in number on college campuses. More than 660,000 of undergraduate students in the U.S. are veterans.
Vets who have interrupted or postponed their education for active service find it difficult to return to a college routine. They tend to be older than their classmates and have vastly different life experiences. According to the VA, only 15 percent of student veterans are 18 to 23, the traditional age of college students.
Amy Kaplan, a VITAL counselor, is a certified social worker who spends up to two days a week at NCC. She helps veterans to navigate the maze of federal benefits and expedite their paperwork. She also offers career guidance and helps connect them to a network of local employers. As a VITAL representative and trained counselor, Kaplan is able to cut through red tape.
“She is an intermediary between the veteran and the Veterans Administration. It’s rare to have a partnership like that,” Smith said. “Vets will get help faster. They can get access to healthcare, therapy, physical therapy, or see a doctor.”