By MICHEAL ROMERO
When Pima Community College appointed Hector Acosta as acting director of military and veteran services in June, he set his sights on one goal: repairing service for the sake of the students.
“My No. 1 priority was fixing the audit issues and perceptions that were in the community,” Acosta said. “All the expertise was there but there was no leadership.”
Student veterans previously had issues receiving their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, in part because just four staff members were available to handle customer service, audit issues and certifications.
There are now 12 employees in the Veterans Services office. They include a support specialist, four student services coordinators, five campus veterans advisors and two student services specialists.
With a self imposed deadline of Aug 1, and extra help from Desert Vista Campus Vice President Ted Roush, Acosta and the 12 employees finished an audit of backlogged files of former students.
The process was completed in time for an upcoming audit by the Department of Veteran Affairs Education Compliance office.
The audit, which may happen at any time, will check for compliance in certification, documentation and distribution of services to veterans.
“Of all the errors they found last time, they’re coming to see that we fixed them,” Acosta said.
Acosta was brought in after the resignation of his predecessor Daniel Kester on April 7.
Kester resigned when the plan he put in place failed to yield desired results. He said the remaining 1,500 files could not be completed in time for the Veterans Affairs visit and charged there was little institutional support for veterans at the college.
Using Kester’s compliance action plan, Veterans Services employees finished auditing the backlogged files by the end of August.
Acosta said the success comes down to the hard work by those in the Veterans Center.
“From my perspective, the main issue was bringing the team together,” Acosta said. “Now, we have young people in charge at the campuses and we have a coordinator responsible for the Vet Center, which has an increasing number of vets coming in for support.”
Acosta attributes the increase in the number of veterans to the work of the Student Veterans Organization.
“Now that the SVO is up, even more exposure gets out to the other campuses,” he said. “The Veteran Center was averaging 20-30 vets a month and we’re at over 140 per week now.”
Military and Veteran Services Coordinator Jorge Camarillo makes it a priority to ensure that veterans know help is available if they need it.
“I travel to all the campuses and make sure the SVO is visible,” Camarillo said. “Because it’s about the student, that’s why I come to work, to find what I can do to help students succeed.”
Camarillo also helps make sure veterans see the appropriate advisor at each campus to ensure they get the proper benefits or know that the Veterans Center exists.
The Veterans Center at Downtown Campus has a full computer commons available with free printing and a conference room. It doubles as a quiet space for veterans.
The center also houses office space for advisor Anna Brown and for Camarillo.
“It’s like a one-stop shop,” Camarillo said. “When a veteran comes, they have an advisor that can take care of their benefits.”
Camarillo said the Veterans Center was in the process of hiring tutors for math and writing to help maximize the help that can be provided.
“We want them to get a certificate or a degree” Camarillo said. “We also work with UA and NAU to provide a bridge to get them into four-year schools.”
Camarillo successfully organized a barbecue honoring Veterans Day that featured guest speakers, representatives for Martha McSally and representatives for various colleges and programs.
Student Veterans Organization President Selah Hadi said the situation for veterans is better overall, noting it shows in the graduation rate for veterans at Pima.
“We have one of the highest graduation rates for a junior college in the entire United States,” Hadi said. “We are at about 35 percent now and the average is 33 percent, which is great.”
Looking forward, Acosta feels there is still work to be done. He plans to do all that he can to help the college and its student veterans.
“There are still complaints because we’re not perfect,” he said. “But for the most part, the veterans who need it are getting support.