Ceremony marks opening of MCC-Penn Valley’s new student veterans lounge

MCC-Penn Valley student veterans on hand for the grand opening included (from left) Tyler O’Neil, who was active duty Air Force for six years (now a reservist); Tim Sanders and Lloyd Browne, members of the Army National Guard; and Richard Winston, who was active duty Army for 10 years, then served in the Missouri National Guard and the reserves.
MCC-Penn Valley student veterans on hand for the grand opening included (from left) Tyler O’Neil, who was active duty Air Force for six years (now a reservist); Tim Sanders and Lloyd Browne, members of the Army National Guard; and Richard Winston, who was active duty Army for 10 years, then served in the Missouri National Guard and  reserves.

Update, April 7:

Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley officially opened its new student veterans lounge April 7 with speeches, a color guard, tours of the new space and red, white and blue cupcakes.

At the ceremony, MCC Chancellor Mark James told those gathered near the lounge, on zero level of the Campus Center, that the event “gives us an opportunity to truly showcase how much MCC values our veteran students.”

The College hopes, he told student veterans and military members, that the lounge “becomes your home away from home when you’re here at MCC.”

Dr. Joe Seabrooks, Penn Valley president, singled out Linda Lechowicz, co-adviser of the campus Student Veterans Association, for her tenacity and commitment to the project. Lechowicz wrote the proposal that resulted in a $10,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation and Student Veterans of America.

Seabrooks, keynote speaker, issued three challenges to MCC student veterans:

+ Each semester, to seek out someone on the professional staff who can serve as a mentor, and to seek out two students and mentor them.

Richard Winston, commanding officer (president) of MCC-Penn Valley's Student Veterans Association, speaks at the grand opening.
Richard Winston, commanding officer (president) of MCC-Penn Valley’s Student Veterans Association, was one of the speakers. (Click any photo to see it bigger.)

+ To be clear about the difference between “an education” and a credential such as a diploma. No matter how many classes you take, papers you write or tests you ace, “you will never in your life be fully educated,” Seabrooks said.

+ To understand and be clear about your values, including those learned in the military. To assess your own values or someone else’s, Seabrooks said, just look at two things: how you spend your time and how you spend your money.

Lechowicz told the crowd that one important goal for the student veterans space is to help them transition from “military world” to “educational world,” which can be very different things.

Lynn W. Rolf III, director of VFW programs at Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City, said he views current student veterans as “the next Greatest Generation.”

A lot of veterans don’t make their status obvious — Rolf removed his hat to point out his own short haircut, to chuckles from the audience — but everyone at Penn Valley should “let (student veterans) know all the great things the MCC SVA is doing.”

Among the dignitaries were MCC Board of Trustees president David Disney and trustee Mariann Tow.

From left: Veterans Upward Bound program coordinator Carl Alexander; MCC Chancellor Mark James; MCC Board of Trustees president David Disney; MCC student veterans Lloyd Browne and Richard Winston; Student Veterans Association co-adviser Linda Lechowicz; MCC-Penn Valley president Joe Seabrooks; MCC trustee Mariann Tow; and MCC student veteran Tyler O’Neil
From left: Veterans Upward Bound program coordinator Carl Alexander; MCC Chancellor Mark James; MCC Board of Trustees president David Disney; MCC student veterans Lloyd Browne and Richard Winston; Student Veterans Association co-adviser Linda Lechowicz; MCC-Penn Valley president Joe Seabrooks; MCC trustee Mariann Tow; and MCC student veteran Tyler O’Neil

Click here for a photo gallery from the event.

Here’s our original story:

Choosing the ideal location for a student veterans lounge means you have to think about more than furniture. You also have to keep in mind the fastest way out.

The new student veterans lounge at MCC-Penn Valley includes two new sofas and warm blue walls.
The new student veterans lounge at MCC-Penn Valley includes two new sofas and warm blue walls.

In the case of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, “we’d like to see a clear exit,” says MCC-Penn Valley student Jesse Reid, 27, who served four years in the Army.

Penn Valley has had a lounge for student veterans and military members since 2010, known at first as the MWR room (military parlance for morale, welfare and recreation). But the new space — not far from the old one, near the cafeteria on the zero level of Campus Center — is 100 percent more inviting, has windows looking out to a seating area and is steps away from an exit.

One big reason the new lounge is nicer than the old one? MCC-Penn Valley won a $10,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation and Student Veterans of America, which bought some new furnishings, including two couches, and a new kitchen complete with refrigerator and microwave.

MCC facilities staff built the new kitchen. They added walls and a drop ceiling to the space.
MCC facilities staff built the new kitchen. They added walls and a drop ceiling to the space.

The new and improved student veterans lounge, Campus Center 001, officially opens on Thursday, April 7. An open house is set for 12:30 to 3 p.m., with a short ceremony at 1:15. Everyone’s invited.

Linda Lechowicz, a financial aid adviser on the Penn Valley campus, is volunteer co-adviser of the Student Veterans Association on campus. She’s not a veteran herself, but her husband is a member of an Army reserve unit, one daughter is in the Navy (stationed in Okinawa, Japan) and another serves in the Missouri Army National Guard.

Lechowicz wrote the grant proposal, which ended up totaling $10,383. Then came the good news that Penn Valley’s SVA was one of the winners. Later there was even more good news: Although the grant was advertised as $10,000, Home Depot paid the entire $10,383 — in gift cards.

Turns out you really can buy almost anything at Home Depot, in this case everything from paint and ceiling tiles to kitchen cabinets, lamps, a coffeemaker and a cozy area rug. (Two new laptop computers are courtesy of a different grant.)

Tables at one end of the room are good for studying or eating lunch.
Tables at one end of the room are good for studying or eating lunch.

The grants were a big help, of course, but MCC facilities employees, both the district and Penn Valley teams, were invaluable, too — building walls, lowering ceilings, installing the cabinets, running electricity and so on.

The new lounge also has a new door courtesy of MCC, but this one can be entered with a key code. Students had to check out a key to open the door of the old lounge.

No one was using it. “It just wasn’t a pleasant place to be,” Lechowicz says.

The lounge is now open — for conversation, TV-watching, lunch-eating etc. — but the challenge is getting the word out to veterans on campus.

“I visualize it being so full there’s not enough seats in here,” says Lechowicz, sitting at one of two tables on an end of the room with military flags on the wall. “But we’re not there yet.”

Since 2014, the Vet Center Initiative has built or improved student veteran spaces on 61 campuses nationwide, and applications are being taken again this year. Lechowicz encourages other MCC campuses to apply. (Deadline is April 22.)

She says Penn Valley has at least 80-90 student veterans, mostly 20-somethings, although it’s a group that doesn’t always self-identify.

The lounge is only for student veterans and military members, by the way. No civilian friends allowed. The lounge aims to be a place for veterans to decompress between classes and get some peer support.

PV vets lounge2Jesse Reid, who likes to wear green and tan military-style boots (they’re “ridiculously comfortable”), says it’s nice to have a space set aside for veterans. Yes, military people are used to “controlled chaos,” but he appreciates an oasis from the din of student chatter outside the lounge.

Also, he says, a lot of people just out of the service tend to talk about “highly controversial, not PC” topics.

Tyler O’Neil, an MCC-Penn Valley student who was active duty in the Air Force for six years and is now a reservist, says he appreciates the Student Veterans Association (he’s the executive officer) as well as the new lounge. This is his first experience attending college in person.

“The lounge gives me a quiet, comfortable place to study and provides a good opportunity to meet people I have something in common with,” says O’Neil, 25. “I frequently bring my lunch from home and eat in the lounge between classes. It’s a great way to avoid distractions and saves me time and money.”