By Jennifer Lazzo
At the Voluntary Education Center (VEC) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, mission critical means
providing quality education counseling to primarily U.S. Marines and their families, members of other military branches, veterans and Department of Defense employees, so they can achieve their educational goals.
“Our goal is to get them to and through college,” said Melora McVicker, education services officer. For the past nine years, she has been a part of a team that provides students a roadmap that explores sources of funding, highlights experiences and reviews the training and education necessary to fulfill their dreams.
“My favorite question that I hear is: ‘How do I get started with my education?’ You don’t have to know all the answers before you begin,” she said. “A part of the college experience is exploration. Explore. Take classes. Find out what you enjoy.”
The education center offers testing, both military and civilian (e.g., Microsoft, CompTIA), free proctoring services and exams for college credit, which are funded through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support. Students can gain insight into personality type, aptitude for learning a new language or academic strengths.
McVicker, two academic advisors and three education technicians work together to help students define academic or career goals, provide information to meet those goals and create partnerships with the appropriate resources. Students pursue certifications, licensures and degrees from associate level to Ph.Ds. “We spread the academic offerings to meet the needs of all of our audience,” said McVicker.
In addition, the information and assistance on the financial aspects of gaining higher education they provide to students is also critical. The VEC team explains how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), understand the nuances of the G.I. Bill, find both local and national scholarships and apply for the Tuition Assistance (T.A.) program. The T.A. program is for Marines only and provides up to $4,500 each fiscal year. “We make better citizens when we invest in their education, their future,” McVicker said.
Accessibility Is Key
Vida Torres is usually the first person students and potential students see when visiting the education center. As one of the education technicians, Torres helps with immediate needs, such as providing a student with guides to potential schools or programs, confirming account information, acting as liaison with the student’s school or directing the student to a VEC colleague. She serves approximately 300–500 students per month, whether it is in person, by telephone or via email.
The VEC serves students both locally and around the world. The Marine Corps, as well as other branches of the military, have 17 similar education centers around the nation and internationally. Each education center has its own agreements with higher education institutions based on audience need. Quantico has
agreements with seven universities and colleges, which offer both face-to-face and online classes.
Many students focus on general studies, information technology and business, according to Torres. “They want to be able to take the credits with them if they were to separate from the military prior to completion,” she said.
The VEC opens before most buildings at Quantico, beginning the day at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. for evening classes. The education center also stays open through the lunch hour as well to accommodate the needs of its local students. “We want to be as accessible as possible,” Torres said. To accommodate students who may live in other time zones, some across the world, Torres said they check the general inbox constantly to make sure they respond to all students.
To get more Marines involved and aware of the program, the marketing group promotes the VEC through its Facebook page, signs and flyers posted around Quantico, and by word of mouth. The VEC is added to check-in lists for people new to the base, which requires them to visit the office, speak to someone and receive a welcome packet. The more Marines who know about the VEC and what it has to offer, the better served they will be.
What surprised Torres the most when she first started her position at the VEC after working as a registrar for an art school? “I was surprised by how enthusiastic the students are and by how gracious
they are [when receiving] guidance,” she said.
“They are excited and passionate,” she continued. “It’s exciting [for me] to see how excited others are to pursue an education.”
Jennifer Lazzo ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and editor, who earned a B.A. in technical journalism and political science from Colorado State University. She lives with her husband and twin daughters in Montclair.