Estrella Mountain Community College’s Veterans Services Center helps current and former military members take advantage of their education benefits, but that’s not all.
Take Tonia Smith for example. When the Air Force veteran’s husband got orders to move from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, they landed in the Valley of the Sun one week before the fall semester started. The prospect of getting everything in order to begin classes that late in the game was daunting, but the Veterans Services Center was committed to getting her enrolled.
“I met with Nate Kelley, Veterans Services Specialist Senior, and said, ‘School starts next week, am I going to be able to do this?’” the former F16 Avionics Technician said. “And he said, ‘Yes, if you’re really determined.’ I think I spent four or five hours there that first day, and I had my two kids with me. They were so good, thankfully. I came into the Veterans Center almost every day that week and got everything done.”
That following Monday, Tonia began her first semester at EMCC. But it wasn’t long before she was back at the Veterans Services Center, this time seeking employment opportunities. Her Post-9/11 GI Bill paid for her education as well as provided a monthly housing allowance but money was still tight. Her husband took a substantial pay cut moving from Alaska to Arizona and moving in and of itself comes with a myriad of associated costs. So she dropped by the Veterans Services Center and asked Nate if he knew of any places that were hiring veterans.
“He pointed to a ‘Now Hiring’ sign right there in the Veterans Center,” Tonia said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, we’re hiring.’”
She filled out an application that day and thanks to the cloud, was able to jump on one of the Veterans Services Center computers and quickly print out her resume. About two weeks later, Tonia was employed.
“It has definitely helped pick up any extra expenses we have had,” she said. “Especially since we now have two kids in childcare. Plus, I started in November, so it really helped with Christmas, which was right around the corner.”
Tonia got her Associate Degree from EMCC in 2018 and is currently attending Arizona State University where she will graduate in December with a Bachelor’s in Organizational Leadership and Business. She’s still clocking in at the Veterans Services Center, something she said helps her fiscally as well as mentally.
“I love it here,” she said. “I feel like I have kind of a weird sense of humor and being able to joke with other veterans who understand what I’m talking about makes me feel less odd.”
She has non-military friends, but sometimes, they just don’t understand what it’s like to serve, she said.
A lot of times, the military is a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 job, but a lot of times, it isn’t,” she said. “Like the long nights that your husband is gone or the long days that I was working, especially when I was pregnant. It’s good to be around like-minded individuals. We all understand each other. We all have similar issues.”
Former and current military members also have access to other benefits aside from education, and the Veterans Service Center is more than happy to point them in the right direction.
“This is seriously a one-stop-shop,” Tonia said. “Veterans can come and ask questions about things like buying a house and military-related things like disability. This place is awesome.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Tonia did just that and wound up using Nate’s real estate agent to purchase a home in Buckeye.
“He was awesome,” she said. “We still keep in touch because we’re both ‘Game of Thrones’ fans.”
After completing her bachelor’s, Tonia plans on getting her master’s. She’s not sure exactly what she wants to do with it, but she knows she wants to help people, something she’s already doing at the Veterans Services Center.
“I’m federal work-study, so I do basic office work, but on top of that, I help other students get their schedules ready for the semester, help them choose classes, and give them guidance on how the veterans benefits work.
“Kind of like what Nate did for me.”