In the Marine Corps, Zach Schoonover served two tours of Afghanistan and Iraq where he helped in the nations’ rebuilding efforts. Recently, he has helped Portland Community College build a respected veterans affairs resource center at his home campus.
As more veterans return home and go back to college, the need to assist them in navigating benefits and acclimating to college life is growing. PCC has roughly 1,400 students who are military vets and that number is increasing. As a result, PCC responded by establishing the Rock Creek Campus Veterans Resource Center – the first, and only, one-stop resource center that provides a space dedicated for student veterans to network and relax.
Currently, the Veterans Services Office at the Sylvania Campus only has an office to certify student educational benefits. The Cascade Campus has a small area outside of the library and the Southeast Center doesn’t have an adequate area to serve vets yet. But there are plans to create full-service Veterans Resource Centers across PCC thanks to input from students like Schoonover and funds from the college’s bond program.
Schoonover, a Rock Creek resident, said he’s a big fan of colleges establishing resource centers for his peers, which can make a huge difference in the acclimation process.
“It’s a fantastic place for veterans at Rock Creek to come in,” Schoonover told the House Veterans Affairs Committee back in May at the State Capitol as part of a presentation with Financial Aid and Veterans Services Director Bert Logan, and Rock Creek Dean of Student Development Narce Rodriguez. “They come in, hang out, get information they need, find out where to go to get financial aid on campus, learn how to transfer to four-year universities and get information on other VA benefits. We’ve pretty much set up a support group in there. And, we’ve started branching out and doing community service projects that help people in the county.”
The last two years, PCC has amped up the awareness campaign for the needs of veterans. Students and staff organized a Veterans Appreciation Week in the spring across the district that included specific workshops for veterans, jobs and resource fairs, and guest speakers. On top of that, students coordinated service projects such as fundraisers for Lacey House (Oregon’s first and only privately funded, full-service home for homeless veterans) and deployment care package drives each term.
“They have a very effective veterans services program,” said Rep. Brad Witt (District 31), who toured the Rock Creek VRC in May. “It’s a major transition moving from the military back into civilian life and then into school. The camaraderie that’s available through the resource center is very important. Taking that big leap, making that transition, jumping into something that is unknown; it’s easier to make that leap or jump when you are making it with somebody else.”
Rock Creek set the standard thanks to Rodriguez, who identified the need for a staffed VRC after convening a group of concerned faculty four years ago.
“I wanted to ensure that when our veterans came back from war that they were able to have the services they need provided to them at the community college,” Rodriguez said. “It was also a goal of the faculty who were really struggling in the classroom in understanding who the veterans were in class.”
Schoonover is grateful. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies of Islam from San Diego State University in 2000 before serving a five-year stint abroad. He worked from 2005 to 2011 as a private military contractor until coming home to enroll at PCC to explore how to set up a small business. In total, he’d been removed from civilian life for more than a decade and didn’t know many people when he returned. The Rock Creek VRC helped him find his way.
“It is a huge transition coming back to school,” Schoonover said. “The big problem that you face is dealing with a younger generation who doesn’t necessarily have the same perspective as you. The resource center has provided a good place for veterans to come and calm down when they’ve had a difficult time. The nice thing about having it on campus is that you see those individuals day in and day out that are also using the resource center.”
For more information about PCC’s Veterans Services, call (971) 722-4502.