One-of-a-Kind VECTR at Middle Georgia State Connects Veterans to Higher Education, Workforce

Sheron Smith

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

It was the paperwork. Tons and tons, or so it seemed, of paperwork.
That's what Jonathan Almendras remembers most about preparing for the end of his Air Force enlistment - transition assistance office personnel handing him one brochure or flyer after another offering information about his education benefits, looking for work and other aspects of reentering civilian life.
Almendras was grateful, but overwhelmed.
"It was basically a crash course on getting out of the military," he said. "There's so much information that it's easy to overlook some of your benefits."
As executive director of the new Veterans Education Career Transition Resource Center at Middle Georgia State University, Patricia Ross gets it. When explaining VECTR's mission, she usually points out how much time the military invests in training the newly enlisted versus the amount spent preparing them for discharge.
"Depending on the service branch, a recruit gets 10 weeks or more of basic training coming in, but maybe two weeks of transition guidance going out," said Ross, who speaks from experience as a retired Air Force colonel. "Among the many ways VECTR can assist veterans is working with them to sort through their options and helping them plan a way forward."
VECTR, which formally opened in early August, is a collaboration of the University System of Georgia - with operations managed by Middle Georgia State - and the Technical College System of Georgia. VECTR’s laser-focused purpose is to assist Georgia veterans and active-duty military personnel and their families transition to higher education and civilian careers or connect them to various services to meet specific needs.
The center is located in Warner Robins in a bright, newly built facility not far from Robins Air Force Base, but Ross and others repeatedly emphasize that VECTR exists to serve veterans throughout Georgia.
No comparable center exists anywhere else in the nation.
"VECTR breaks down silos," Dr. Christopher Blake, Middle Georgia State's president, said at the facility's grand opening. "It relies on community engagement - not only engagement across 29 state colleges and universities and 22 technical colleges, but on the federal, state, local and non-profit agencies to whom our staff will be able to refer veterans in need."
In its first month of operation, VECTR served more than 1,100 veterans and their family members. Of those, nearly 80 began the process of enrolling in a college or university, about 40 received job-placement assistance and another 30 were connected to community resources to help with emergency situations.
One case involved a Navy veteran, a single dad to two children, who was left homeless after someone he trusted tricked him into relocating to Warner Robins, then stole his money and disappeared.
The veteran somehow learned of the 21st Century Partnership, a collaborative that works to enhance the military value of Robins Force Base and Middle Georgia. He called that office and shared his story with someone who immediately thought to contact Ross for help.
VECTR "triaged" the situation, and in short order several Warner Robins churches and Volunteers of America worked together to provide food and find housing for the family and enroll the children in school. The veteran is now employed and starts Central Georgia Technical College's  aircraft structural technology program in January 2017.
"That's a pretty good illustration of VECTR," Ross said. "We're not a stand-alone organization, but a service center that partners with organizations that help veterans, provides space to them and collaborates with them to come up with holistic approaches to individual cases. It's amazing synergy."
Besides Ross, VECTR staff includes an assistant director - Dr. Joe Richardson - and several others with roles related to IT, education, success coaching and standardized testing. Dee Lindsey, MGA's executive director for Veterans and Military Services, and Dann Webb, CGTC's executive director for Military and Veterans Services, have offices on their respective campuses but also do much of their work out of the center.
"I'm sort of the face of the University for veterans who come to VECTR," Lindsey said. "Middle Georgia State has long served veterans pursuing degrees, but the services were scattered among different departments. We've pulled all those resources together so veterans don't have to hunt and peck on our website to find information they need."
Rojean Sanders, 33, is one of the veterans Lindsey works with, as is Almendras. A Macon native, Sanders tried three different colleges after graduating from Central High School but, uncertain of what she wanted to do, joined the Army before completing a degree.
Sanders suffered a serious in-service injury due to an accident, which inspired her to become an RN. Eventually after her discharge, she enrolled at Middle Georgia State, where she is taking pre-requisite courses for the Nursing degree program and serves as president of the National Society of Leadership and Success.
Her first visit to VECTR in September left her impressed.
"It feels like a great place to get some encouragement, maybe a place to network," she said. "I hope veterans will take advantage of it."
Almendras, 28, is a Chicago native who remained in Warner Robins after serving most of his four years in the Air Force at Robins. He met his fiance there and plans to stay at least long enough to finish his bachelor's degree in IT from Middle Georgia State.
Like Sanders, he is using his GI benefits to pay for his education. Almendras is hoping to help  revive Middle Georgia State's Student Veterans Organization and thinks having VECTR as a resource may help.
"It's a very impressive place, modern and nice-looking," he said. "Calling the VA is time-consuming, so if you can just connect with one person (at VECTR), that should be very helpful to veterans who want to learn how to best manage their benefits."