Golden West College on Tuesday officially unveiled its first dedicated space for returning veterans, a resource the campus hasn't seen since the Vietnam War.
The college held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its Veterans Resource Center, a place for returning servicemen and women to get help transitioning into and navigating the community college bureaucracy.
College and district officials were joined by veterans old and young on the college's quad for an opening ceremony as the sun drifted behind a building.
The attendees, and a smattering of students who stood on the grass looking on, were cast into a cool shadow as a female vocal troupe sang two of the Andrews Sisters hits before the police academy's color guard held a presentation of the flags.
As a chill set over the ceremony, emotions ran high for some as they spoke about the sacrifice veterans make and what society owes those who make that sacrifice.
"What you are doing is paying a debt that we owe to some very brave fellow Americans," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) about the center. "They protected our freedom and ensured that we can live the way we do."
For some veterans, re-entering the system after several years of service is harder than just learning the lay of the college or tricks to snagging the best classes.
While navigating the college, former servicemen and women are also transitioning back into civilian life. They are learning to live at a different pace, re-integrate with their families, get a job and find housing. Some veterans are also dealing with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.
"This generation of veterans is going to have greater needs than any generation of veterans since World War II," Rohrabacher said.
Other veterans have a hard time connecting with the typical community college students, being older with different life experiences. This disconnect is the other reason the veterans center is so important — fellowship.
Experience has found that students who form a connection to the school do better in classes and have a higher rate of success, said Debbie Bales, the college's manager of outreach and promotions. The center gives them a place to connect with people who have had similar experiences, she said.
"It's just been found helpful and almost necessary for them to meet each other and help each other," she said.
Marine Michael Brinkman, 26, who started at Golden West in the fall, said connecting with his peers is the most important aspect of a Veterans Resource Center.
The Garden Grove resident served in the Marines for four years, doing two combat tours in Iraq.
He now visits the center twice a week before his classes to "just hang out with the guys," he said. The center opened in the fall.
For Brinkman, it is a kind of safe haven where he can say what he wants without getting funny looks and get away from the younger students, whom he can't relate to.
"It's just comforting," he said. "It's a place to go relax."
He also hopes to help future returning vets next semester by sharing his advice and experiences.
"I want to be able to extend that hand that wasn't necessarily extended to me," he said.
The college is looking to expand its services by hiring veterans to work at the center through a work-study program, Bales said.
The center boasts a meeting room, study room with a computer and Wi-Fi, staff offices and a "mess hall." The center can also be used for private counseling sessions and as a meeting area for the Student Veteran Organization.
The center works with outside agencies to help students find housing, counseling and referrals to other services.
The college had no budget for the endeavor, but was able to convert several underutilized rooms, Bales said.
Golden West is the fourth campus in Orange County to open such a center, said Terence Nelson, the president of Region 8 Veterans Consortium, an organization that works with community colleges to advocate for veterans and military personnel's education rights.
The college serves nearly 350 veterans and is anticipating an increase in enrollment over the next couple years, Bales said.
"We have students coming back every day on our campus here, and we really needed a place for them to go," said Jerry Patterson, a retired congressman and president of the Coast Community College District Board of Trustees.
The center gives veterans a place to go, but also gives other students a way to find them. Students have come into the center to thank them for their service, Brinkman said.
"That's what makes you feel better, makes you feel like you accomplished something," he said.