BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — North Shore Community College dedicated a new veterans center at its Ferncroft Road campus yesterday, giving returning veterans their own “bunker,” a safe space that they can call their own.
The center, with its couches, lockers, conference room, computer workstations, laptops and snacks will be a place where student veterans and military members can study, relax, figure out which courses they need to take or just connect with others as they parachute from the military, to school to the work place.
In cutting a ribbon to the new center, in the math and sciences building, the community college created a space that interim college President Janice Forsstrom said shows the school’s long commitment to high-quality services and programs for student veterans and military service members. The college has 350 veterans and military members.
Massachusetts Secretary of Education Matthew Malone, a former Marine Corps Reserve sergeant, said there’s a push to create similar veterans centers at the state’s 27 college campuses.
“This is a special place,” Malone said of efforts at NSCC, “this is not the norm.” He said the center and the college’s efforts will serve as models for the rest of the state’s higher education system, singling out efforts to serve veterans at Salem State University, as well.
“We know that when you come back, that brotherhood and sisterhood that we experienced out there, it doesn’t exist in the real world to the extent we are used to,” said Malone, the former Swampscott schools superintendent.
“So, we have to build that, because we know the reason we have been successful in our lives is because we have had a platoon, a fire team to fall back on. And when we build those bunkers in our individual campuses such as this, we know our student veterans will be much more apt to be successful, because they are going to have a place they call home,” Malone said.
Veterans Club Student President Ryan Gregory, 26, is a former Army sergeant who served for six years in the military, including a 13-month tour in Iraq.
Now, he’s pursuing an associate’s degree in fire science with an eye to becoming an arson investigator. He and former classmate, former veterans club president and former Marine Asa Leausa, helped grow the club and created the former veterans center, which was a third of the size of the new one, Gregory said.
To grow the club’s membership, Gregory sought out student veterans by looking for students with military backpacks or veterans license plates. The club grew from two to 80 members in a semester.
“The biggest challenge facing veterans today is the transition from military to civilian lifestyle,” Gregory said, “and even greater is the transition into student life.” The transition can be “dangerous,” going from the world of combat to a college campus in what seems like a matter of seconds, he said.
“Essentially, this center is a support network for a group that is often misunderstood by the general population,” Gregory said.
Former NSCC President Wayne Burton, a Vietnam veteran, understands firsthand the center’s value to student veterans. When he got back from Vietnam, Burton wound up in MBA classes with other veterans and was able to form connections “to defuse with other Vietnam veterans.” A year ago, the NSCC center consisted of a divider and a desk — the only place veterans could share their innermost thoughts, Burton said.
The center was made possible by a $30,000 grant from the NSCC Foundation, which paid for laptops, computers and other amenities, Forsstrom said.
Danvers director of Health and Veterans Affairs, Peter Mirandi, a Coast Guard veteran and 1974 graduate of North Shore Community College, said the center is good for the college and for Danvers.
“I have veteran students here as an adjunct faculty, and they express to me that it’s hard for them to fit in. They are older, and they do need something to identify themselves with, and other folks. It’s good and encouraging, Mirandi said.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.