The Veterans Services Center is located in Wythe Hall.
Thomas Nelson has strong ties to the military community in Hampton Roads. For the 2019-20 academic year, there were 1,738 active duty and veteran students, about 6.2% percent of the total population. If you add in those affiliated with the military, which covers spouses and other family members, it’s closer to 30 percent.
Those who work in the office of Veterans Services at the College are proud of the work they do in helping those with military affiliations reach their higher education goals, whether that’s earning a degree, certificate or learning new job skills.
“It’s part of our mission to provide the best possible programs, options and service to that community,” said Gary Pounder, assistant director of Veterans Affairs. “I think we have been successful in doing that.”
Don’t just take his word for it. The website colleges.militarytimes.com listed Thomas Nelson on its “Best for Vets” rankings for 2021. The College was ranked third in the Appalachian region for public, two-year institutions.
“It’s an accomplishment that we take great pride in for obvious reasons because TNCC serves such a large military population,” he said.
The website combines public data from the Department of Education and Department of Veterans Affairs with a survey that is sent to each institution. The survey asks about the graduation rate of veterans, how many veterans each college serves, how many are active duty, tuition rates, facilities (is there a Veterans Services Center?), as well as other services or opportunities offered other than VA benefits.
Brandie Weaver, a Veterans Services manager at the College, has a simple explanation for the success.
“We have a very strong staff,” she said, mentioning co-worker Kathy Carbaugh, Pounder and Veterans Affairs financial aid director Marc Vernon. “The military and veterans staff is very student-oriented so we put the students first.”
The Veterans Services Center, which is in Room 230 outside the library, features a lounge to relax and grab snacks. Those extras go a long way in showing support for veterans.
“A lot of colleges don’t really put in the time and effort to have a welcoming, caring destination for active duty military and veterans and their families,” Vernon said.
Carbaugh said when the Hampton campus is open, students stop by on a regular basis, sometimes just to chat or relax.
“It’s just been an encouragement to the students who come in just to have a quiet place,” she said. “I just feel like it’s a safe place.”
During the pandemic, with no in-person visits, the staff took extra steps to reach out to students.
“In the last couple of years, and in particularly with COVID, I really felt like we ramped up our customer service and making sure that the students were addressed via email and phone calls so they felt like we were really here for them even though we weren’t on campus,” Carbaugh said.
Vernon sees that dedication on a daily basis.
“God bless Brandie and Kathy for what they do day in and day out,” he said. “There’s a lot of personal attention that’s needed, and they love providing it, and they’re good at providing it, clearly.”
Students also have taken notice. Pounder, Vernon, Weaver and Carbaugh all say they receive regular phone calls or emails from students thanking them for their service. The staff recently received a message from a student who had attended the College in 2018-19. He has since graduated from George Washington University’s nursing program. He thanked them for all they had done.
“That is the ultimate compliment, coming back years later and saying, ‘You don’t know this but …,” Vernon said.
Providing excellent service, and going the extra mile is the least the College can do, said Vernon. Service members, as well as their families, have sacrificed so much for others.
“All of our students are important. We care about every single one of them. The military or military-affiliated or the veterans, they’re unique individuals,” he said. “It’s the least we can do to give back to them. … Some of them are injured, some are permanently disabled.”
Carbaugh has experienced the College’s connections to the military from a parent’s perspective, a returning student’s perspective, and an employee’s perspective. She says it is about more than helping them earn a certificate or degree.
“Not only are we assisting them with their benefits, but we are assisting them with going to college,” she said.
The staff is looking forward to the return of in-person visits. They enjoy when students stop, but not just when things are going well.
“We vocalize on a regular basis that we’re here for them no matter what, their good days or bad days,” Carbaugh said. “This is a place for them to come and hang out and feel comfortable. It’s their space.”
Said Weaver: “We’re excited to be seeing the students again. Being away from the students for over a year, we’re excited to be working with our students face to face, providing that service they expect.”
Pounder knows there’s always room for improvement, and they’re always looking for ways to better serve the College’s military population.
“But, again, to be recognized for what we’ve done so far is, indeed, very, very satisfying,” he said.