TCL’s Veterans Resource Center helps ‘connect the dots’

Center re-opened to in-person services in November

Shortly after DeWayne Simmons came on board as TCL’s new Veterans Resource Center Director, he overheard a conversation that caused him to have a “light bulb moment.”

Simmons was fast at work in the center, on the first floor of the MacLean Building at the Beaufort Mather Campus, when a couple of students out in the hall began having a friendly argument over a video game.

“That’s when it clicked for me,” said Simmons, who served 25 years in the United States Marine Corps before retiring in 2011. “That’s why we have the VRC, and that’s why we’re here.”

Not that veterans don’t enjoy or play video games, he said laughing.

“We’ve just had different life experiences. And that means the conversation is going to be different.”

DeWayne Simmons, Veterans Resource Center Director

“We’ve just had different life experiences,” he added. “And that means the conversation is going to be different.”

In fact, it’s this recognition – that veterans may have different needs because of their unique life experiences – that’s at the heart of everything the VRC does, said Simmons who was charged with reopening the center once he came on board in November. The VRC had been closed to walk-in and in-person foot traffic since the pandemic broke out in 2020.

Simmons at the re-opening of the VRC in November

The center’s main mission is to assist veterans and their family members who are interested in enrolling at TCL by providing information on programs and walking them through the admission and registration process. However, the VRC also helps with such things as career counseling and identifying financial aid and transition resources. Once these individuals are enrolled, the center provides continued support.

Simmons even helps troubleshoot specific problems students may be having – from academic challenges to personal issues that may require additional resources – to help students achieve their educational goals.

“There’s nothing we can’t figure out,” he said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Just let me know what it is, and we’ll figure it out.’”

It’s an important mission since veterans, active duty members of the military and their dependents make up 19% of all those enrolled at TCL.

TCL President Dr. Richard Gough said the center is important not only to TCL but to the community as a whole, pointing to Beaufort’s military bases.

“A recent study showed that the military presence here in Beaufort County had an economic impact of about $2.2 billion on our local economy,” he said. “That’s why TCL has long recognized the importance of having not only the resources in place to assist our veterans, active duty members of the military and their family members, but also a physical location where these individuals can come in and get the hands-on help they need to further their education.”

Simmons seconded that notion.

“It’s a kind of a conduit for people who are deciding on college or what their next steps might be,” he said.

For some, that might mean helping them figure out what’s next or where they can apply the skills they picked up while serving in the military. For others, it may be a change in careers or a desire to prove to themselves they can do academic work.

“It’s all about connecting the dots,” he said. “I also tell them they can do whatever they want to do, they just have to work hard to get it. Sometimes it’s just about getting them to believe in themselves.”

And even though TCL has been consistently ranked as a Military Friendly School – a designation awarded to colleges every year by an independent council – many veterans still feel a disconnect after they exit the military and attempt to re-enter civilian life.

“That’s tough for some people,” Simmons said. “Especially if you’re coming from a place where the tempo is fast, or where you don’t have any down time after you get back. It can be hard to then try and go back to school.”

No one knows what that’s like better than Simmons.

Originally from Lake City, South Carolina, Simmons enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1986. Though his parents were against the idea at first, he was determined to sign up so he could pay his own way through school.

“I saw how much my parents struggled to pay for my sister’s college (education),” he said, adding that’s when he made the decision to enlist and take advantage of the military’s paid tuition programs. “I didn’t want them to struggle to pay for mine.”

In fact, Simmons’ father would only grant him permission if he promised to go to college. It was a promise he was proud to keep, he said.

He earned both an associate degree and a Bachelor of Science in Management degree from Park University in Washington, D.C., then finished with a Master of Education from Concordia University in Austin, Texas.

After Simmons retired from a long career in the military, he was able to have some downtime or prepare before going back to work – a luxury many veterans don’t always get, he noted.

Veterans and TCL staff at the re-opening of the center in November.

Still, much like his fellow veterans, there were times when he felt at odds with civilian life, recounting how he was once told it was OK to go home from a part-time job he had taken after retiring. Apparently his work ethic and habit of working through lunches and breaks had not gone unnoticed.

“You don’t even know you’re doing it,” he said, laughing.

That’s why today, as the VRC’s director, he is committed to helping those who may be having a similar experience.

“The biggest thing you can do is to share your experience and say, ‘Hey I went through it, and there are other people going through it.’ We all help each other.”

And whether they’re veterans or not – Simmons says he doesn’t check status – students who have been helped at the VRC often come back if only to check in or say hello, something that’s been very rewarding for him personally.

“It feels pretty good,” he said. “Especially when they come running up to say they got an A or a B on some paper or something.”

That’s why he tries to underscore the doors are always open and no problem is too great or small for the VRC.

“Although it’s called the Veterans Resource Center, it’s really everybody’s resource center,” he said. “Everyone is welcome. It’s a resource for everybody.

“And it’s OK to leave at 3 or 5 or whenever and not be completely done,” he said with a smile. “You can always start back on it tomorrow.”

For More Information

For information on veterans’ resources, call (843) 525-8264 or visit www.tcl.edu/military-programs/veterans-resource-center. Meetings can also be made by appointment at the Marine Corps Air Station, in Beaufort, or at Parris Island in Port Royal.