A Veteran-Friendly College

BMCC Veterans Service Specialist, Wilfred Cotto with his staff.

BMCC Veterans Service Specialist, Wilfred Cotto with his staff.
October 16, 2014

There are some 4,500 senior and community colleges in the U.S., and while many offer a high-quality education, only a fraction are geared to the specific needs of student veterans. Within that small elite, BMCC is ranked among the best of the best.

That’s the word from the magazine Military Advanced Education (MAE), which has published an annual guide to the nation’s most veteran-friendly degree-granting institutions or the past eight years. BMCC has been listed as a “Top School” in the 2015 MAE Guide to College and Universities.

To make its Top School selections, according to MEA associate publisher Gwen Silverstein, the colleges are asked to complete a detailed questionnaire about policies and practices in four categories: military culture, financial flexibility, and support services—both online and on-campus.

“In meeting the needs of military veterans, there are certain basic things a school should be doing, such as participating in cooperative service opportunities with other colleges, and signing the Department of Defense’s Voluntary Education Partnership Memorandum of Understanding,” says Silverstein.

“Then we look at additional areas, such as providing special faculty training around the education of student veterans, and accepting experiential credits based on the student’s life experiences.”

Overall, MEA seeks to measure each school’s mindset as it relates to military veterans. “The schools with the highest ratings are entitled to use our ‘Top Colleges & Universities’ logo in their marketing, advertising and recruitment materials,” Silverstein says.

Helping veterans smooth the transition

BMCC’s leadership in this area is based on an awareness that for military veterans, the transition to academic life can be a bumpy ride. “In the military, you become accustomed to completing clear-cut missions and following orders,” notes Wilfred Cotto, who joined BMCC in 2013 as the Student Life Specialist for Veterans Services in Student Affairs.

“In contrast, the academic environment can feel confusing and frustrating, so we provide a wide range of services to help student veterans get acclimated and accomplish what they’ve set out to do.” Currently, there are approximately 400 military veterans enrolled at BMCC.

Cotto himself served on active duty in the U.S. Navy from 1977 to 2005, making several combat deployments to the Persian Gulf. His last tour of duty was aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan.

BMCC’s responses to the MEA questionnaire revealed an academic institution with a solid and far-ranging commitment to student veterans.

“The questions were probing and exhaustive,” says Cotto “For example, does BMCC have a full-time veterans services coordinator? A student veterans club? A dedicated space on campus for veterans services? Do we have a veterans support team in place? Are there specific programs, events and orientation sessions tailored to the needs of student veterans? Do we comply with the US Veterans Benefits Administration’s Principles of Excellence? Do we conduct ongoing communication and outreach to veterans?”

In every instance, Cotto says, “we were able to answer with a resounding ‘yes!’”

BMCC’s connection with MEA dates back to Cotto’s tenure as Director of Veteran Affairs at CUNY from 2007-2012. “I was at a conference when I met an editor at the magazine who told me about the annual ‘Top Schools’ list,” he recalls. “He saw the extent of our services to veterans and thought we might want to consider applying—which we did when I arrived at BMCC.”

Cotto is quick to note that BMCC’s veterans services offerings are very much a team effort—one that draws heavily on the college’s staff, faculty and students, with cooperation and support from a number of departments including the registrar, bursar and financial aid offices.

Students play a lead role

“Right now we have two interns from the Hunter College School of Social Work, providing intervention and counseling services to student veterans; student veterans enrolled at BMCC who serve as peer mentors; three work-study students who support student veterans activities and services; and one college assistant,” he says. “The students are really the ones who have put most of this together.”

That said, Cotto views the college’s services to veterans as something of a work in progress.

“The MEA listing means that we’re recognized for doing the right things, and that is enormously gratifying,” he says. “But we’re really just getting started. I want to our service model continually improve and grow to the point where we’re the model for other colleges across the country.”

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