By Steve Sears
For the sixth consecutive year, Berkeley College was ranked in the U.S. News and World Report as one of the Best Colleges for Online Bachelor Degree programs, placing among the top for the Best Online Bachelor Programs and Best Online Bachelor Programs for Veterans.
The placement was not surprising for Edward Dennis, Assistant Vice President, Berkeley College Office of Military and Veterans Affairs (OMVA). Berkeley has been ranked before. “Interestingly enough, we moved up,” he says, “and it was pretty significant (the jump in ranking). There are some criteria that everybody is evaluated on. You submit all of your documents, and all the criteria are weighted. It’s kind of like going to class. What’s your ranking in the class? Who has the highest-grade point average? So, in doing that we moved up in ranking in the ‘class’ because we increased our overall performance based on the metrics they look at.” As a retired Army Major, the recognition means even more to Dennis. “Everyone knows who U.S. News and World Report is. So, as a veteran, if I’m looking at colleges I want to attend, that’s going to be a part of my evaluation criteria.”
The OMVA was formed in 2009. The post-9/11 GI Bill was passed, and for the first time since World War II, there was a large influx of veterans returning from overseas that started attending college. “When that happened,” says Dennis, “ a lot of schools really weren’t prepared for it.” Recognized were needs for veterans returning home that are unique: adult learners whose lifetime experiences were different. “There are a lot of studies that show different things you can do to provide the best environment for them. So, that’s what many of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs has done, look at how we can enrich and improve the experience for the students that are here.”
Berkeley College has seven campuses where 450 veterans in the system attend classes, and they can do so either online or at the physical school itself. Berkeley also has a Virtual Veterans Resource Center set up on its website that students can access a variety of resources.
Gabrielle Peralta joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. “The reason I joined was because my grandpa served in the Army during World War II.”
Peralta researched other colleges before picking Berkeley, finding Veterans Affairs representatives were not in their office and one didn’t have a veteran’s affairs representative on campus. When she visited Berkeley to apply, Tami Pichardo, Veterans Affairs representative at the Woodland Park campus, was present, explaining to Peralta what she needed to do to attend the institution. Peralta was sold on the worth of Berkeley College, and a special friend aided her decision. “Also, having Skyla the therapy dog in the office also sealed the deal for me coming to Berkeley. My relationship with Skyla – I’m her best friend. She helps me with the PTSD that I have, and in return I play and walk her when she needs it.”
“Also” she adds, “the veteran representative is always available to help you with any questions.”
Peralta, working towards a degree in Business Administration – Management, is also President of the Woodland Park Spartans, the New Jersey Veteran’s club at the school. “The purpose of our club is to give the veterans at Berkeley an outlet, and everyone in the club knows what you have gone through and understand what you are talking about. Also, it helps veterans transition from military life to college life.”
Dennis values his work with the OMVA and his relationship with the students. “I find it personally rewarding to be able to go back and help veterans go to school. A little under 90% of servicemen are first generation in their family to go to college. So, they can’t call home and ask, ‘What’s a bursar?’ or ‘What’s a registrar?’, which are words you don’t hear anywhere else in the world. It’s kind of confusing to navigate through, so I help bridge that gap, because I myself am a first generation in my family to go to college. So, it’s nice to inspire them, to let them know they can achieve more than they thought they could.”
Dennis every semester also writes a letter to every student who scores a 4.0 GPA. “I write them a letter and I give them a little gift.” He then adds with a smile, “I had to write 68 of them last semester.”
Josephine Cornacchia, who served 5 years in the United States Air Force, began attending Berkeley College during the winter 2017 semester. She is also seeking a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration – Management and serves as Vice President of the Woodland Park Spartans. Cornacchia has a certificate in Culinary Arts from Eva’s Kitchen in Paterson, and her instructor in that realm was also a veteran who attended Berkeley and sang its praises as a veteran-friendly school. “I actually live in Woodland Park, so it’s very convenient and it worked out.” Her plans are to combine her culinary talents with her eventual business degree and forge a nice future.
Of the OMVA, Cornacchia says, “I go there often. I ask questions, get information, and they’re very helpful. Berkeley College works very well with veterans. I think it’s good to have veterans in a school setting; I think we add something to the classroom with our experiences.”
The Woodland Park Spartans are a new club, and they believe in giving back. “We are just kind of learning as we go,” says Cornacchia. “Last semester we did a fundraiser with Saint Joseph’s (University Medical Center in Paterson), we got a bunch of toys and donated them to the Hematology and Oncology units at Saint Joseph’s for Christmas for all the kids. We like to do drives and help people. So, we also want to be there for veterans, because a lot of veterans have different issues and they feel comfortable talking with someone in the same situations as they were.”
Dennis elaborates on how the OMVA benefits veteran students in a few ways. “The Department of Education, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, three different departments of the government– rules conflict, it’s confusing, so we kind of help them (veterans) navigate through that. They may fall under all three with their benefits if they’re actively serving, have their GI Bill, and are going to college. We help them understand their benefits, just give them the information to make an informed choice on how to best use their benefits. So, that’s very important. Another piece that comes out, that goes way beyond the educational piece, is – and I have this conversation with a lot of veterans – maybe they’re having an issue with their pay. So that creates problems for them because most of them have families, and most of them have to feed their families and house their families, and the money they were expecting to come in for their budget doesn’t come in. We guide them to resources in the community and help them out.”
“In talking to veterans regularly and getting to know them, you can tell if something’s not right for somebody. Sometimes I, or one of the staff, will pull them aside and ask, ‘Are you alright?’ All of the sudden they’ll open up. We’ll ask them, ‘Do you know about this resource?’ or make a phone call with them there and put them in touch with the right person to eliminate some of those barriers so they can focus on what they’re ultimate goal is, to graduate from college, get the career that they want, and provide better for their families.”
A special Veterans Graduation Gala will be held on March 28 at the Chart House in Weehawken to honor the hard-working folks who served and studied. “It’s not the graduation ceremony,” says Dennis, “but it’s to highlight them in an environment where it’s for the veterans.”
The big goal for Dennis and OMVA is to change the veteran cultural mindset. “One little thing,” he said. “When things start to go wrong, reach out to other veterans or reach out for help. Don’t put your head down and drive harder forward. If it’s not working, reach out to us. I just want that little cultural mind shift to recognize that if things aren’t going right, ask what support is out there to help you out.”
He adds in conclusion, “For any veteran, they earned their GI Bill. It’s not a benefit just given to them. They earned it. So as with anything you earn, they should really know about where they want to go (to school). Don’t rush into a decision, go talk to the student veterans, go look at the campus.”