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New Veterans Club at MCCC Creating Bridge to Civilian Life;
Chapter President Micah Steels Attends Leadership Conference

7/25/14


West Windsor, N.J.– At age 43, Mercer County Community College student and U.S. Army veteran Micah Steele has covered a lot of territory.  Born in Hawaii, he left for the Caribbean at the age of 18, where he worked for Martin Marietta in St. Croix and then did farm work, where he learned to repair equipment.

By the age of 27, he had other goals in mind.  He was thinking about marriage and a family.  He also knew he wanted to go to college and thought his best route would be through the U.S. military.  He enlisted in 1997.

Fast forward 14 years, and Steele, of Ewing, is finally fulfilling that wish.

“This is my opportunity,” says the Liberal Arts student, noting that he expects to work for many more years and would like to prepare for a career that is less physically demanding than his previous work as a vehicle technician in the military.

Steele, who achieved the rank of sergeant during active duty with the Army through 2003 and then served in the National Guard until 2011, was deployed to South Korea and had several tours in Iraq.

Injured in 2009, Steele returned to the United States for rehabilitation at the Army Base at Fort Dix and then moved to Ewing Township.  “New Jersey has the ocean,” the Hawaiian native observes of his decision to remain in the Garden State.

Steele believes that community colleges are an obvious starting point for many veterans re-entering civilian life, particularly those who are entering a college classroom for the first time.  “It’s a way to ease into it and get used to an academic environment.  Once you realize you can be successful, your confidence grows,” he said.

Steele first started at Mercer in 2010, but believes he just wasn’t ready.  “I had good intentions, but it overwhelmed me. I felt like I was going it alone.”  Then, he took a break and reached out for help.

“I talked to a counselor and other veterans,” he recalls.  Noting that he used to fix anything and everything while in the Army – including tanks – he enrolled at Lincoln Tech and earned an associate degree as a diesel technician.

He began again at MCCC in 2013 and, this time around, it’s been a completely different experience.  “I am getting good grades and connecting with my professors and other students.  I had to be in the right place first,” Steele said.

Steele’s own story gave him the motivation to establish a new MCCC club this spring with co-founder Paula Klockner, whom he met during his first semester.  He recalls that he and Klockner quickly came to the same conclusion: there was a need for a veterans club at Mercer.

From left, AVS co-founders Paula Klockner and Micah Steele, with MCCC Veterans Services Director Drew Daddio.
Penny Wars champs, seated from left, Mike Bustin, Ben Petraitis and George Scott; back from from left, John Grainger, Paula Klockner, Jefferson Lalanne and Micah Steele.

Micah Steele at the 2014 Student Veterans of America Leadership Institute with Hillary LaFever-ceja, a representative from Arizona State University.

Klockner, while not a veteran herself, comes from a military background.  Her father served in the Air Force; her husband is a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran; and her son, Timothy, served in the Air Force and went on to earn three degrees at Mercer. The house she grew up in was just up the hill from the BG William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Arneytown, NJ.

“I know what families go through.  I want to be one of the people who helps,” she said.

Klockner, who originally came to Mercer to earn her degree in Global Business, is now focusing on social work with a long-term goal to assist veterans.

Steele and Klockner quickly got to work to establish the club and have found their partnership to be a productive one.  “We have similar ideas.  We are both dedicated to helping veterans adjust to civilian life,”  they say.

The Alliance of Veterans and Supporters (AVS), a chapter of the Student Veterans of America, was officially established in January and started meeting the very next month. Steele is the group's president and Klockner is the new vice president. John Grainger is the treasurer.

Since February, the club has met multiple times each month, attracting a core group of six and as many as 19 students.  And, as military action in the Middle East winds down and more veterans are likely to turn to Mercer as their starting point for college, the numbers are expected to grow.

The co-founders believe the club serves a vital purpose. “It’s a way for veterans to start socializing with civilians.  We can use the college as a platform to do that.” They add that supporters of veterans -- like Klockner -- are encouraged to attend meetings and get involved.

Recently Steele represented Mercer at the 2014 Student Veterans of America Leadership Institute held at the Walmart Corporate Headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., from June 26 to 29.  The three-day conference drew 200 student veterans from across the country.

With a focus on easing the transition from combat to the classroom and building sustainable student veteran organizations, the conference attendees engaged in strategic planning, collaborative activities, chapter management techniques, networking and more.

“The conference emphasized the value of collaboration,” Steele said.  “I made connections with people who have the same concerns.  It will help me to be an effective leader for our chapter.”

While Steele and Klockner will be completing their associate degrees in December, they are determined to leave behind a club that will soldier on without them.

They are establishing meeting procedures based on Robert's Rules of Order.  They are also planning lectures on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and veterans’ benefits for the fall, as well as inviting guest speakers to speak on topics of general interest. 

Steele notes that even in its first semester, the group had some high profile successes, including being the top fundraiser among Mercer’s clubs in the Penny Wars Challenge for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a nonprofit that assists families of children with cancer.  The club also hosted a popular “high striker” booth at Spring Day.

“I think we are creating a welcoming culture for veterans here and laying a good foundation,” Steele said.  Klockner adds, “Mercer is a very supportive place.  We want to make it a destination for veterans.  The people here really care about us. It can be an important stepping stone.”

According to Steele, helping other veterans is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do for society.  “Veterans have lots of experience, maturity and skills.  And there are a line of people around the block who want to help veterans, but you can’t sit back.  You have to reach out and find them.”

Drew Daddio, MCCC’s Director for Veterans Services and the advisor for AVS, says that this past spring 144 veterans were enrolled at Mercer and the number is predicted to grow.  This year, the college began offering counseling services on-site at the West Windsor campus through the Trenton Vet Center.

More about Veterans Services

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Glenn Kraft