Call to Duty: PCC Helps Veterans on Campus

Photo courtesy Carol Calandra
Carol Calandra is interim director of the Pasadena City College Veterans
Resource Center.

Pasadena City College’s Veterans Resource Center last month celebrated its 10th anniversary.

On this Veterans Day week, when we salute those who served us in the military, such an anniversary is particularly poignant.

Interim center director Carol Calandra of South Pasadena and Harold “Doc” Martin, whose class influenced her and so many veterans who attended PCC, have been there since the facility’s inception.

The center offers coaching, tutoring, academic and vocational counseling, certification of GI Bill benefits, and help with practical problems faced by today’s veterans.

There is a Veterans Administration representative on campus and groups such as AA are available. Veterans can study as a group for a semester taking a number of courses, and a session called “Tool Kit Thursday” helps them with everything from how to study to dealing with anxiety.

Each year between 600 and 1,200 student veterans — men and women ranging from their 20s to their 50s — use the center. The college last year graduated its largest class of student veterans, issuing degrees and certificates to 117 students. The independent Military Times’ annual rating of two-year colleges ranked it as one of the top 10 schools for veterans in the United States and one of the top five in California.

Many veterans, including Calandra, point to a class called “Boots to Books,” taught by Martin, as a key ingredient to the success of the program for veterans.

The 73-year-old Martin, whose occupations have included enlisted man in Vietnam and psychology professor at PCC, said his class was the second of its kind in the country, and that he had been teaching it longer than anyone else.

Martin recalls that he let Calandra, who had gone back to college at age 40, in his inaugural 2009 class because of her interest in helping veterans in some capacity. She remembers sitting next to a combat Marine who had just left Afghanistan.

“He had that same stare that I remember my uncles having when they returned from Vietnam and for decades afterwards,” she said. “This young man expressed the concerns that we — regular America and more importantly regular college students — had no idea what was going on in Afghanistan and because of the treatment his veteran family had received returning home from the Vietnam War, he didn’t really know what to do and was ‘lost.’

“This really hurt my heart. I knew from talking with this veteran and hearing his transitional troubles that we could not let what happened to our Vietnam veterans happen to the veterans of these long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

After a career that included 15 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and having been raised in a military family, Calandra decided to follow her passion and enrolled at PCC in hopes of counseling veterans.

The friendships she made in Martin’s class changed her life. She decided to bring her passion to advocating for those who had volunteered to serve their country.

Calandra, who had moved to South Pasadena in 2006, graduated from PCC in 2010, got a bachelor’s degree in 2012 from Cal State Los Angeles and then a master’s in counseling from that school in 2014.

She started at PCC as a work-study student; then as a part-time professional expert. After receiving her bachelor’s she moved into a full-time position as veterans case manager for five years, and was named interim director about a year ago. She has been named a Woman of Distinction for her work with veterans by both Congressman Judy Chu and Assemblyman Chris Holden.

Calandra recalls that the first center was a small office which has since grown into a 1,800-square-foot facility, and that the program — which began as a veterans club — has received strong support from the PCC administration.

The center is often just as valuable to students when they’re out of the classroom, offering a range of counseling services.

“Thank goodness, now we are celebrating weddings and babies rather than attending funerals,” said Calandra, whose master’s degree is in counseling. “The hardest hit suicide, for me, was in 2010. There was a young man who had come back from Afghanistan. He had the biggest, most beautiful smile. It was like we missed it. We were utterly shocked.”

Calandra now has seen a lot of “shocking” situations. There are students who come to class after sleeping in tents or without shoes, or who haven’t eaten a good meal in days. Many of these needs are addressed by national and local charities and by the school.

“There are times when I’ll see a student who is dragging, and I’ll say, ‘Have you had your Wheaties today?’” she said. “And they will admit that they haven’t had a good meal in two days.

“They have the GI Bill, but they are sleeping in cars. We try to remove the barriers that prevent success in education.”

Not Just Teacher, ‘Doc’ Is Comrade in Arms

Some people observing his “Boots to Books” class at Pasadena City College think professor Harold “Doc” Martin is too tough on his students.

That’s just fine with Martin. The 20-year military veteran, who fought in Vietnam, likes the tough touch with his students.

“Being in the regular Army and coming up as an enlisted man helps me connect with a vet in a way 99% of teachers cannot do,” Martin said. “I’m a combination professor, commanding officer, counselor, and I see them both in and outside of class.”

The 73-year-old Temple City resident has been adviser to the Vets Club for 14 years and has been teaching “Boots to Books” for 12 years. The class eases students out of a military mindset, gives them practical skills as students and helps them with life skills.

“I’m tough on them and the vets kind of get it. Some people think I’m too hard, but they [the veterans] respond to this,” Martin said. “They get it. It works 99% of the time.”

The vets do a lot of journaling and Martin leads them on a “camping” trip that is not as recreational as it is work. The students work with rescued animals, learn to meditate by going to a Buddhist temple, and do a lot of talking.

“Some people say things they have never said to anyone else in their lives,” Martin said.

The class is three hours a week for 16 weeks, and credits are transferrable to a four-year college. Students get graded, and Martin emphasizes that this is no easy A. Some people get D or F. “You have to work,” he said.

Martin remembers the Vietnam vets who came home to derision and scorn and were made to feel like losers.

“We were made to feel like we were stupid,” Martin said.

He sees some of his fellow Vietnam vets still suffering even now, decades after the war.

“I didn’t want another generation to go through what happened to people who came home from Vietnam like I did,” Martin said. “They [some of the Vietnam vets] are like Rip Van Winkle, still in a coma. There is no movement. They are still living in 1968. These are people who are stuck in life. The challenge is how to get people moving again. That’s what I did.”

He got a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and became a counselor in the Cal State system. He’s taught psychology part time for 20 years, and 12 years ago began the “Boots to Books” program. He said that he has been teaching this class longer than anyone in the country and that it is the second of its kind in the country. Many veterans come out and pass the word. Twenty-five per cent of vets are out of state.

One of his success stories came early in his teaching career when a vet came in with stringy hair, a long beard and dark glasses and sat alone in the front row. Martin remembered he had a list of disabilities two pages long.

Six weeks later he got a haircut and was no longer wearing the dark glasses. He was sitting on a chair in the middle of class talking to his fellow students.

“There was a complete transformation, both physically and emotionally,” Martin said. “He felt supported and respected. When you see how changed some of these guys are, it blows your mind.”

He is known around campus as “Doc” and is proud of the nickname.

“In units, there is always someone who is a trained medic — who is there to save their lives — and they call him Doc.

“I tell my class, ‘We are all in this together, but I’m here to help. We have common goals — to get out alive. I’m kind of like that doc. It kind of resonates with them.”