By Kim Walter
Like other community colleges in Virginia, Lord Fairfax Community College is enrolling more veteran students than ever before.
According to a release sent out by Virginia Community College System, more than 41,000 students with a military status were served during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The statewide figure represents an increase of 0.6 percent from the previous year.
Kelsey Byard, veteran admissions specialist at LFCC, said the school enrolled about 300 veterans during the spring semester alone. She just started in the position last fall, and while she expected to be busy, she wasn't prepared for just how many students would walk through her door every day.
"We've seen a 10 percent increase in veteran students from year to year, but this past year in particular has shown even bigger growth," she said Wednesday. "I mean we're just growing leaps and bounds every day ... it's unprecedented."
Byard said she expects to see numbers increase in the fall and into 2014 as soldiers return home and begin taking advantage of their G.I. Bill.
LFCC was recognized by G.I. Jobs magazine as a Military Friendly School in 2011 and 2012, and the school is in the process toward recognition for 2013. The designation is the result of research into the policies of 8,000 postsecondary institutions.
In order to be designated, a school must make the top 20 percent of schools that have taken additional action to help returning veterans transition to civilian life.
Byard said it helps that LFCC is already familiar with enrolling "non-traditional students," or students who aren't coming straight from high school.
She said veterans or other students with a military status are quick to find friends or people with similar experiences in class, so the classroom environment is that much more comfortable for them.
"It helps them realize they aren't alone ... they're all here with a mission to better themselves," Byard said. "And, you know, we become invested in our veterans. We want to see them succeed."
Not all of the veterans are coming to LFCC fresh from a tour, though.
Laura Daly-Barrett, 45, of Front Royal, spent nine years with the Coast Guard as an electronic technician before getting out in 1995. Her skills were able to carry over into "real life," and she was able to work a number of steady jobs until last summer.
After getting laid off, Daly-Barrett spent between nine and 10 months looking for a job until she visited the Virginia Employment Commission and found out about VRAP, the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.
Because she was over the age of 35 and unemployed, Daly-Barrett qualified for assistance to go back to a community college or trade school. Now, she's trying to fit in an information technology degree in three semesters.
Daly-Barrett worried that being a full-time student would overwhelm her, since she'd been out of school for so long. However, her persistence and desire to provide for her family has kept her going.
"My whole life I've had people depending on me, and this past year was the longest I have been without work," she said. "I take pride in taking care of myself and others, so I was really struggling."
She said LFCC was quick to aid her in the transition back into school life, and the school led her to other resources like the Virginia Employment Commission and Workforce Solutions. The different organizations have presented her with opportunities that she never thought she'd have.
"And honestly there are a lot of veterans around here," she said. "It's nice to meet them on campus ... we have a common background, and we kind of speak each other's language."
Paul Grammo, 46, of Winchester, was in a similar situation when he was laid off from a job at a local doctor's office. After serving in the Army from 1985 to 1989, he jumped right into the workforce.
"I didn't go to college, and I didn't have any certifications," he said. "But I was interested in the medical field and I was able to get a job that was a learn as you go type of thing."
During his employment search, Grammo also learned about VRAP. He, too, qualified and decided to follow his passion of many years.
His first choice was to serve as a medic in the Army, but instead had to go with his second choice in communications. Now, he's attending LFCC full time to get his nursing degree.
Grammo applauds the help LFCC gave him when he decided to go back to school. Because of his veteran status, he was able to register for classes two weeks ahead of time.
"Back in the day, I was the guy who said he would never go to college, and at first I was apprehensive about going to school because of my age," he said. "But LFCC puts the veterans first."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org