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Veterans Day: Veterans Upward Bound aims to place former service members on college, career paths

Times Record - 11/11/2018

Nov. 11--Transitioning from military duty back to civilian life can be difficult for many service members. Veterans Upward Bound at Arkansas Tech, however, aims to make it a little bit easier by providing education and career-finding resources.

The federal program focuses on assisting low-income, first-generation, disabled or academically-needy veterans. Kristie Wilson, program director and seven-year national guard vet, said two-thirds of the 125 veterans they serve are considered low income and first-generation students.

"We work with veterans and service members who want to further their education or change careers," Wilson said. "We're college neutral -- so they can go anywhere, do whatever they want to do -- even though we're housed at Arkansas Tech."

Arkansas Tech and Arkansas Tech-Ozark received a five-year $1.3 million grant in September 2017 to start the program this past January. Some of the most basic benefits include online course refreshers, access to college and career information, assistance with applications and counseling -- academic, personal and financial.

A brochure also indicates those in the program can benefit from entrance exam preparation, college visits and cultural trips, industry tours and the ability to learn and transition alongside fellow veterans.

Alan Parsons, program academic adviser and nine-year veteran, said he left the military in 2011 to attend college. VUB is a TRIO program, Department of Education programs seeking to support disadvantaged students. While Parsons didn't go through VUB when he ended active duty, he participated in Student Support Services, another TRIO program, as he transitioned back into normal life.

Wilson also participated in other TRIO programs and doesn't want any eligible former service members to waste the opportunities they get to provide.

"They're there for them to use," Wilson said. "That's one thing we do -- help them figure out what they're eligible for and how to use (the resources)."

Parsons noted participation is free, veterans need 180 hours of active duty or part of a reserve component and called to service for at least 30 days and fit into one of the focus groups -- low income, disabled, etc. Participants can also receive a stipend of up to $40 per month. For example, Parsons said a vet can pass one of the online courses or attend a seminar and earn $10. It is free money and education assistance.

In Sebastian County, Parsons said the group has presented information or worked with veterans through the County Veteran Service Office, University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, the Adult Education Center and the Next Step Program at the Buddy Smith Home.

More than 237,000 veterans live in Arkansas, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report, and fewer than 20 percent have attained a bachelor's degree. Even fewer, roughly three to five percent, are enrolled in college, despite 20 percent of the state's veteran population being between 18 and 44 years old.

That same report indicates there is a 6 percent veteran unemployment rate, which is slightly higher than the national average. Parsons said the program helps with career exploration and tries to point veterans in the direction of veteran-friendly jobs and industries.

"Arkansas is big on military. They have a big, outstanding national guard and air guard. Having that, there's always a need (for the program," Parsons said. "It's pretty popular in all the communities we've gone to in the counties. A lot of our visits are at the armories where we talk to national guardsmen in the state. A lot of them are looking for something to do, they just don't know about them."

While the program at Arkansas Tech might be young, Wilson has seen its success before at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. She spoke of the ability to find a tattoo apprenticeship that worked with the program for one of the veterans there and wants the same in the River Valley.

Wilson and Parsons both said they hope to have a long-term impact, helping fellow veterans succeed in whatever area and reach any goal they set for themselves.

"We want to make sure they get where they need to be," Parsons said.

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(c)2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

Visit Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) at www.swtimes.com

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