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The following interview is with Robert Sintich, the creator of the VIPER program at Warren County Community College. The VIPER program, and the associated partnership with Thomas Edison State College, allows the college to better serve active military and veteran students in New Jersey and across the country. In this interview, Sintich discusses the program in a little more detail, shares his thoughts on how similar programs could be established elsewhere and provides some insights into the problems institutions face when serving veteran students today.
1. What inspired the establishment of the VIPER program?
[Throughout my career] I had bumped into veterans who attended other institutions as well as our own. And, looking at the breadth of their rich military experience and education, and seeing that they were not being given a credit — a college-level credit — for the courses they had taken in the military, I started to look at that issue about a year and a half to two years ago. And what I found was that there were a variety of reasons for that; sometimes the curriculum didn’t fit in to what they were looking to do, sometimes it was the fact that the course that they took perhaps didn’t appear on the transcript … and, also, the next point would be that it was never really evaluated because military transcripts so often are evaluated by ACE [American Council on Education] and because of that, perhaps the military training did not have the evaluation being done.
So, with that in mind, I started to explore. I started looking at other institutions, what they were doing, how they were military-friendly and then centering it on us as to what we could do, ourselves, as an institution to better address our veterans who were coming here. And that’s really how the program started, and it took me about a year to do some analysis and to put together the technical studies program and VIPER, … Veterans In Pursuit of Educational Readiness. …
2. For a little background, what is the VIPER program and how does it work with the partnership with Thomas Edison State College?
Well, the program essentially is an associate of applied science degree in technical studies. What that means is that we’re able to utilize any college-level military training that one might have, up to 34 credits, in a particular area. And if there are specific courses, militarily, that have been evaluated and that coincide with the curriculum itself. For example, if someone has a background … in artillery and that background has a lot of math in it, computer science and perhaps ACE then have done the evaluation, we’ll see that the three college-level credits would be awarded in computer applications, for example, and that would be a course that we would be able to give credit to the veteran — and we can go up to 45 credits of the 61-credit program. There’s a couple things that are unique about us. First of all, we’re giving in-county rates for any veteran, no matter where they are in the world. Any veteran that has been in service to the United States. So, that being the case, our board of trustees wanted to address these military serviceman numbers and be able to give them back something for their service. …
The other point of this is that the evaluations that I was talking about, those 34 credits — and 45, if applicable — we look at the evaluation that’s on the military transcripts. Now, for the Army, Marines and Navy, there’s a joint transcript that just came out about two months ago. But what we’re looking for there is the evaluation. Now, if the evaluation isn’t done — and this is where we, with our partnership with Thomas Edison … — we’re able to take a look at military training that has not been evaluated and be able to sit down with the individual, either by looking at it, doing a portfolio review, being able to come out with military credit for their service that … might not be seen by other institutions because it has not been evaluated. And that’s where we’re really very different than many, many other institutions. Now, this program really just was getting off the ground in the fall, which means that this spring is the first group of individuals who started with us for military service and it could be anyone who is active, reserve or a veteran. And we have two veterans who are now going to be graduating this coming May from our program. … They had such a rich background that we’re able to accommodate them and take the courses that they needed this semester.
So, we’re really proud of the fact that not only is this program just getting off the ground, but we’re already seeing some results from the students who are attending here. And I had the occasion where a student who was sitting with me, and I’m looking at the evaluation, and I then tell them how this is all going to fit together. Their eyes light up because of the fact that they’re so thrilled with the fact that they have the necessary background, academically — because our military has been trained so well — that we can be able to recognize that.
And if I may go on and just state that this is not only helpful for the individual in terms of time for them. They have got to spend less time taking courses that they don’t need and getting into the workforce a lot quicker. But, also the fact that it’s going to save veterans money that they would be spending from the federal government on education that perhaps, at this point, we’re able to acknowledge that they have already. I think that’s a huge step too. …
3. How has the program improved your ability to serve veteran and active military students?
Well, I think that so often when we were looking at individuals coming in, we were giving them credit for perhaps maybe physical education and a couple other courses that they might have. But, in the end, it was a handful of credits that they would be achieving. What this has done is opened up the idea of taking a look at the associate degree and being able to pour in their academic military background so that they can move forward.
And, again, when they’re in the classroom, … how rich their background has been in the military to prepare them to be at this point. We also do something with a one-to-one counseling that we have with them to ensure that from the moment they walk in our door or the moment they contact us; we’re able to then reply to them and give them some information and be able to walk them through the process to ensure that they’re comfortable with what’s going on with that. And I think because we’re a small institution, we can do that. But on a one-to-one basis I think that’s something that is very helpful to them because sometimes they get mired … in larger facilities and that sometimes can be discouraging and we want to be able to address that fact as well.
We’re really looking at improving the services for these individuals who have served us.
4. What advice do you have for other institutional administrators looking to develop similar programs to better serve military students?
Well, I think, first of all, this partnership with Thomas Edison is just phenomenal because, again, they’re able to take in the military training that perhaps we would not have been able to evaluate. So, I think having a partnership like that is extraordinary. …
I think the first thing I’d say is that you need to put, structurally, all of these things in place and also to be able to join organizations that are military-friendly organizations so that you can then interact with all of those individuals who might advise students to contact Warren County Community College or their own institution.
And we’re hopeful from the standpoint of having these courses online — not everything is online at this point; many of our courses are — we’re hoping that in the future that we’re going to be doing that to be able to address the needs of individuals no matter where they live. Whether it’s Pennsylvania, California — it won’t make a difference to us because we want to service any and all of our military through this program. So, that’s the bottom line.
But I would say if you’re going to get started, to look at a so-called military-friendly veterans program, one of the key factors here is to give yourself enough time to be able to put all of the pieces of this together so that, from a marketing standpoint, from an academic standpoint, everything is on-board. I met with our faculty here at Warren County Community College and we discussed the program so they were fully-versed and very supportive of us moving forward in this direction. And I also, then, later on through Dr. William Austin, who’s the president, met with board of trustees and outlined what we wanted to do for our veterans and that’s where the rubber meets the road and our board of trustees was extraordinarily supportive in what they wanted to do. …
On the interim, we hired a coordinator. … He’s also a veteran as I am; my background included being an Army officer in the medical service corps …. and [the new coordinator] was an officer in the United States Air Force. So, both of us have some military experience. I have a son who is currently in the United States Marine Corps. So, again, it’s one of these ideas of being able to interact with the military member and understand what they’ve gone through and how we can help them succeed and reach their goals, especially when it comes down to the world of work. Because you can’t be competitive in the world of work unless you have some educational background, and that’s what’s really important here.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about creating programs that better serve military students and ways that institutions can better serve this population?
Well, I think that the bottom line, as I said, is really being able to do this on a basis where the military member — who many, many times feels very apprehensive about walking through those doors or picking up that phone and contacting the admissions office — I think, really, what we want to be able to say is that that has to be very individualized. You respond to the individual quickly; within hours, that individual should have an email back or a phone call back, because at that point in time, they’re contacting you to be able to move their life forward.
And sometimes it can be very scary and, so, again, from that standpoint I’d say the biggest suggestion is to be able to understand where they’re coming from. Having a veteran’s program also where there’s peer — one-to-one — [counseling], that’s something that we’re now starting to formulate as well. I know other schools have had that and I think it’s an outstanding way of being able to comfort individuals in making this transition from military to civilian. That’s a very important point here.
One other thing I wanted to mention, and I think this is something I’d love to see done for our military. As much as we are in partnership with Thomas Edison, I know we all would love to see the fact that military transcripts that include all of the military training that they have: that that be evaluated from day one once they complete whatever program they have gone into. In other words, what we see on the transcript, whether it’s been evaluated for college credits or not, and if it has been worthy of college credits, that that would be listed on there. I think that would be really be very, very helpful for every school. …
When speaking to one of the Marine officers at Parris Island (because we were down there several weeks ago) the president and myself went down there for a week and … that’s really a big part of this. It really had us interact with the Marine crew there. We saw and we learned a lot about the training that was done, not anywhere near what a recruit does, but we got a feel for it for that week. And we also were able to interact with the officers and educational personnel down there to be able to ask them about training in the Marine Corps and how much we learned about that in that one-week period. I think that really helped us a great deal to be able to network with them and to see the level of education that was there. And that’s where my idea of having all of that education be evaluated so people can look at their transcript and have an idea of where they stand from an academic standpoint; knowing that they’ve got their received credit for college-level work that they had in the military.
So, we were fortunate to go down there and speak to these folks. That was one of the hallmarks of our VIPER program thus far, to be invited down to the Marine Corps in Parris Island.
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Author Perspective: Educator