After serving four years in the Navy, Bryan Hernandez was ready to start the next chapter of his life. He had been a damage controlman on the USS Nimitz, working as a first responder aboard one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world. He had seen the world, traveling to India, Bahrain, and Japan while in the service.
Now a veteran, he was back home in San Antonio and interested in becoming a firefighter. But he did not have a clear idea on how to enroll in college.
He decided to visit the Victory Center, the new veterans affairs building on the San Antonio College campus, with his sister when he crossed paths with Tony Botello, a Veterans Affairs certified advisor who is also a veteran.
“I was setting up for an orientation and I saw him walking by,” Botello said. “I asked him how he was doing. He was kind of apprehensive but his sister started talking.”
Botello soon made a connection with Hernandez and helped him enroll at SAC, where he is now taking summer courses and plans get a certificate through SAC’s fire science program.
For Botello, running into Hernandez and helping him transition into college was not a random encounter. In fact, the Victory Center was designed to better serve veterans and help them into the classroom.
One-Stop Shop for Veterans
The idea for the Victory Center came out of a conversation Dr. Robert Vela, president of SAC, had with Texas State Sen. José Menéndez. During a visit to campus, Menéndez wondered what more could be done to help veterans attending college. Annually SAC serves more than 3,000 student veterans and has been designated a Military Friendly School for several consecutive years.
The answer Vela and Menéndez came up with was to provide veterans with a centralized location to take care of their needs. At the time, veterans would have to crisscross the campus to process the paperwork necessary to get enrolled in school as well as receive other services provided by their benefits. Running across campus to different departments was time consuming and, at times, frustrating, when students went to the wrong office.
A one-stop shop concept would keep veterans in one place where they could get the services they need for college. In addition, the new center would also help military personnel and family members.
Menéndez secured $7.6 million in state funds for the project in 2015 and the Victory Center was completed in 2018. The center houses several programs including:
- SAC Veteran Affairs
- Mental Wellness Counseling
- Case Management
- Disabled Veterans Claims Representation
- TRiO Veteran Success Grant
- SAC-VA Transfer and Career Center
In addition, the Victory Center has a tutoring center, a computer lab, and a lounge area for studying.
Personal Touch for Veterans
Tammy Micallef, director of student success at SAC, is in charge of the Victory Center. A veteran herself, she spent 21 years in the Navy. Before coming to SAC, Micallef created the Veterans Department at Del Mar Community College in Corpus Christi and worked with the Texas Veterans Commission in Austin as the director of veterans education.
She left the state agency because she wanted to positively impact lives by working on a college campus. “You have people who are dealing with real issues in their lives and have real needs that we can address. At the community college we have a vast array of people with different experiences, cultures, and backgrounds,” she said. “For me, having a more personal touch is what I am interested in doing.”
One such student is Jesse Haro, a disabled Air Force Veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm. A car accident last year proved to be a life-changing event for Haro, and he decided to enroll in college after a 30-year absence.
Haro said his anxiety level was extremely high when he first came to SAC. He met Botello who sat with him at a computer and helped him sign up for courses. Botello then gave Haro a map so he could find all his classes. Haro said he needed to trace his route six different times before he felt comfortable.
“Two weeks into the semester, I realized I bit off more than I could chew,” Haro said. He was lost in the classroom and struggled with his courses, so Botello placed him in tutoring. Haro would spend six days on campus, studying for his classes. Through his dedication he finished his first semester with two As and a B.
He now works part-time in the VA Work Study program and is helping other veterans conquer their anxiety. “It’s fed my spirit so much,” he said.
Although the building is now open and helping veterans, work continues in the facility to further add services for veterans. “There are a lot of plans on the horizon,” Micallef promised. “It’s going to start small but end big.”
What will not change at the Victory Center is the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s like we used to say in the Navy, ‘You can build a ship with awesome equipment but it’s the people who bring it to life,’” Botello said. “The students are the ones who are going to bring it to life.”