David Nelms admits he had a lot to learn when he went to college in Michigan, baseball scholarship in hand, just a few years ago. He partied hard during his freshman year, and within a few months he was back home in St. Petersburg with no real plan in mind.
Like a lot of people in similar circumstances, he decided to join the military.
“I went into the Marines,” he said. “I did two combat deployments to Iraq. I was a team leader during the second one.”
As his second tour came to a close, Nelms decided he would give college another try. This time, instead of a baseball scholarship, he had the GI Bill, along with a dose of maturity that age and his military experience had provided.
“The military helped me understand how to separate my party life,” said Nelms, 23. “There’s a time and a place for that.”
Like many returning veterans, Nelms had some anxiety about returning to college. After all, his first experience hadn’t been very good, and he knew his academic background wasn’t terribly strong.
But he needn’t have worried; once he showed up at St. Petersburg College in January 2010, he found it a lot easier than he had expected.
“When I came to register, someone was there to help me, and the whole process was easy,” he recalled. “Larry Hobbs in the Veteran Services office (on the St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus) helped me, and it was just really easy to register. I went online, clicked on my classes, and hit the VA verification schedule. Then I just had to show up for classes.”
Nelms was worried about whether he would have enough income to cover his expenses while he went to school, but the post-9/11 GI Bill has taken care of that.
“That pretty much pays my living expenses,” he said. “I have a part-time job as a bouncer at a place in downtown St. Pete, but I really don’t have to worry very much about working – I can just go to school.”
Nelms thought he would like to major in Art, but he now plans to change to Criminal Justice. He hopes to join the St. Petersburg Police Department once his studies are completed.
He said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the SPC experience to other returning veterans.
“I would tell them that it is not as hard as they might think,” Nelms said. “The way everything is set up makes everything very easy. If anyone has any questions, the people at the Veterans Center know the answers and can point you in the right direction.”
Hobbs, the counselor, said most veterans make the adjustment quickly, due in part to their military training.
“The service is very structured, and we have made all this very much a step-by-step process,” Hobbs said. “The website does pretty much everything, from applying to the college to dealing with the benefits under the GI Bill. It is all pretty straight-up – getting the GI benefits is pretty easy, and then we take it from there.”
Jeff Cavanagh, the college’s Coordinator of Veteran Affairs, said the college has been working hard to help veterans make a smooth transition.
“Nearly two years ago, SPC began a series of initiatives designed to promote and encourage its growing veteran student population,” Cavanagh said. “A major component was to establish ‘one-stop shops’ for veteran student success.
“The first of these Veterans Services centers was located on the St. Petersburg/Gibbs and Clearwater campuses, and they have become magical places. I use the term ‘magical’ because that is the term I have heard used by faculty, staff and students – the magic happens when veterans connect at these centers, and through shared experience and the assistance of a trained and sympathetic staff, they succeed.”
Cavanagh said additional centers soon will be open at the Seminole and Tarpon Springs campuses. He said the college now has more than 1,500 veteran students, and that SPC’s goal is to increase that number to 10 percent of the overall student population over the next two years.
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