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  • Chang Zhang (left), a veteran student at Pasadena City College, studies with his tutor, Caltech graduate student, Eric Burkholder.
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
  • Volunteer Coordinator Urte Barker (center), speaking with Chris Villalobos (left) and Giovanni Valladares (right), two veteran students participating in the PCC Veteran’s Tutoring Program.
    Credit: Jon Nalick/Caltech
11/05/2015 14:43:51

Volunteers for Vets

For the last three years, Caltech students and staff have been lending a hand at Pasadena City College, providing free tutoring and mentoring to some of the campus's nearly 800 student veterans. This past spring, 19 Caltech community members participated. Their involvement is part of a larger volunteer program, run through PCC's Veterans Resource Center (VRC)—established in 2010 under a grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office—that provides support and guidance to the campus veterans. 

Patricia D'Orange-Martin, coordinator of the VRC, calls the Caltech cohort "the core of our tutoring/mentoring team" and credits it with providing more than 60 percent of the program's support, "particularly for veterans preparing to transfer to four-year colleges and universities." 

Urte Barker, the creator of the tutoring program, started the center with a handful of volunteers. In 2012, she decided she was ready to enlarge the group of tutors and expand academic support, especially in higher-level math and science subjects, and approached Caltech through its Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) and through the Caltech Y.

The Caltech community responded enthusiastically. Some tutors are undergrads, including Dennis Lam, a junior majoring in computer science. "The veterans I've worked with are motivated, hard working, and have a clear picture of where they want to be in the next stages of their lives," Lam says. Volunteers have also come from the ranks of Caltech's graduate students, postdocs, administrators—even a postdoc's chemistry-teacher wife.

Serving veterans, says Mitch Aiken, associate director for educational outreach at CTLO, "provides our students with the chance to deliver meaningful one-on-one outreach." It also allows them to "give back, expand their own worldview, and get in some excellent real-world teaching experience," he says.

"We're looking for mentors and role models of all ages," says Barker. "Current or recent students are close enough to their own study years to remember the feeling. Older volunteers bring invaluable experience in life-skills development."

"At first, I thought I'd need to be a subject-matter expert," says volunteer Elizabeth DeClue of Caltech Purchasing Services. "But tutoring turned out to be much more about supporting the student and sharing what it takes to be successful."

The need is great, Barker says. "Society has created this huge group of people in their 20s and 30s, dropped them back in school while they're scrambling to gain traction in civilian life and told them to catch up. Some are pursuing careers that will require years of study. Others have memory or health issues." With the military's emphasis on pride and self-sufficiency, however, veterans often resist seeking help, she says. "I keep reminding them: 'What you're learning in college will become your toolbox for your career and your life. Commit to it.'"

Volunteer tutor and former JPL education coordinator Rich Alvidrez understands from personal experience the issues these vets face. "I found myself very rusty in math after I left the Air Force to begin my college education, so I can understand how difficult it is for some vets to get back after being out of school."

Lessons learned extend far beyond the textbook. "Many students' lives prior to military service lacked enrichment opportunities," Barker says. "Now they're picking up valuable life skills: time management, prioritizing school against outside interests, perspective about opportunities they'd never heard of. That's uplifting and empowering."

Although the potential demand for tutors still outstrips the supply, Barker remains optimistic. "So far, we've just been putting drops on a hot stone," she says. "We also lost some wonderful people after graduation this year. But at the Caltech Y's Community Service and Advocacy Fair in October, I met people with phenomenal amounts of heart and energy. This program creates a feeling of effectiveness and personal satisfaction that keeps our volunteers coming back."

Written by Dave Zobel