Central Carolina thinks new veterans grant is a perfect fit

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Central Carolina Technical College officials are excited about a new grant the college was recently awarded and think it's a perfect fit for Sumter and the college's surrounding region.

In September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $1.3 million Veterans Upward Bound grant to Central Carolina designed to prepare and assist local military veterans for acceptance into college or a postsecondary institution and success in a program of study.

The five-year grant program will serve 125 veterans a year at a cost of $263,938 per year from CCTC's four-county region, which includes Sumter, Clarendon, Lee and Kershaw counties. About 55 colleges across the U.S. received the award, according to the department.

The region's combination of high-veteran concentration, low income levels and need for a more highly trained workforce were key factors in the college's award selection, according to Lisa Bracken, the college's vice president of student affairs.

Close to 10 percent of the four counties' total population is military veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and in the region's industrial center of Sumter County the veteran population is 15.5 percent, thanks in large part to Shaw Air Force Base. Sumter's veteran percentage of total population is the largest of all 46 counties in South Carolina.

According to Bracken, it was the college's third attempt at a veteran-based grant in about the last five years.

For veterans, transitioning from a structured, active-duty lifestyle to civilian life can be a difficult move, according to Bracken and Gwen Parker, director of federally funded TRIO programs at the college.

An Air Force veteran herself who served from 1984 to 1994, Parker is excited to help other veterans navigate the college landscape as the new Veterans Upward Bound Program director.

"I am looking forward to be a service to fellow veterans," Parker said. "I understand some of the barriers to the transition from active duty to being a civilian, so I reach back on those memories. It's almost like a culture shock to move from one arena to the other. But, with the help of the new program, we are going to make that a smooth transition."

To qualify for the program, a veteran must be a resident of the college's four-county region (Sumter, Clarendon, Lee or Kershaw counties). Next, the veteran must meet one of the following criteria: be out of high school or college for more than five years; have a disability; be below a certain income threshold; or be a first-generation college student.

Bracken said program services will include helping veterans earn a high school credential, if they don't already have a diploma. Other services include test preparation to help veterans get into a college and test out of developmental/remediation courses, career assessments, help with the college application process and the financial aid process.

Students can attend the technical college to earn a certification or associate degree, but the program will also partner with other local colleges - University of South Carolina Sumter, Morris College, Saint Leo University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - to offer a wide variety of institutions that students can choose from.

Once in a local college, the program will provide veterans supplemental course instruction and specialized personal and professional workshops - covering everything from health and family to financial issues - to help them succeed in the civilian world, according to Bracken.

A third program component, "Vet Talk," will be a monthly event in CCTC's Veterans Resource Center on the main campus on North Guignard Drive to encourage camaraderie among the veterans and peer-to-peer exchanges, Bracken said.

Central Carolina's new President Michael Mikota is pleased with the staff's efforts at winning the grant award.

"Central Carolina's staff did an exceptional job in securing this opportunity for our college and most specifically, our veteran community," Mikota said. "Our region, led by our legislative delegation and partnerships with our military friends and neighbors at Shaw, have led South Carolina in becoming one of the most military-friendly states in the United States. This major award proves that we are still leading the way."