Jessica Peak is the East Los Angeles College VRC Program Director, Veterans Counselor, and Faculty Advisor for the SVA Veterans Club. She has served military-connected students at ELAC since 2013.
With Jessica’s leadership and campus advocacy, ELAC’s VRC offers academic counseling, VA Certification, college & VA benefits enrollment assistance, wellness counseling, tutoring, disability services, a computer lab, lounge, gift card basic needs assistance, food pantry, a laptop & technology loan program, on and off campus referrals, transfer pathways for veterans, workshops, events, university tours, and a SALUTE National Veterans Honor Society Chapter. ELAC is also a Peer Advisors for Veterans Education (PAVE) partner, preparing veterans to effectively mentor their peers through academic and transitional challenges, and to engage new students with the VRC and community college experience.
As the VRC counselor, she has helped veterans and military-connected students graduate from ELAC and/or transfer to public and private universities throughout California and nationally. Outside the campus community, Jessica serves as the Lead for the Los Angeles Community College District Veterans Committee, Co-Chair for the California Region 7 Veterans Director Consortium, and Los Angeles County Regional Representative for the California Community College Chancellor's Office Veterans Advisory Board. Jessica and the ELAC VRC team take great pride in serving (and advocating for) our nation’s veterans, service members and their families.
I began my counseling career, part-time, in 2008. As an adjunct counselor, I gained experience working with general students and various special population programs. I remember one day working my hours at the general counseling department and meeting with my first student veteran appointment. I had no clue how to help. All I was presented with was that he was using his VA education benefits and needed me to adjust his education plan so he could receive his monthly payments. I asked my colleague in the next office how to create a VA education plan for this student and exactly how I can help him. Her response was a simple “I don’t know. Usually veterans who come in know what they need so I just add the classes to their education plan. It’s pretty easy.” I may have met with only two more student veterans after that appointment, and I did just what I was advised to do, give them what they say they need. The problem is that it never felt right. I felt I was failing our veterans by not knowing more, and providing the support they needed to succeed.
In 2013, I was hired as the first tenured-track, full-time counselor assigned to veterans in the Los Angeles Community College District. Accepting this position was the beginning of my professional and personal mission to improve our services. Now, I oversee our Veterans Resource Center’s comprehensive One-Stop-Shop, which has gained local and state recognition. ELAC students who meet with a veterans counselor today, leave with a list of resources and direct connections to services going beyond what they only needed. Seeing the gratefulness of our students, and the positive impact our VRC team makes on their student veteran experience, reminds me every day of why I love my job.
In general, student veterans may experience challenges with readjusting to civilian life, accessing VA services, understanding VA education benefits, housing, food insecurities, lack of purpose and camaraderie, mental & physical well-being, learning how to be a student, as well as balancing work, life, and family. Additionally, women veterans, veterans with disabilities, veterans still serving in the National Guard or Reserves, aging veterans, and LGBTQ+ veterans in higher education present unique challenges. VRC’s across California consider all of these challenges when implementing services for military-connected students.
For counseling appointments, I meet with student veterans virtually, via phone, or in-person. We provide flexibility for our students to meet with a veterans counselor, knowing students are also balancing work, family and life. Our most common goal is transfer to a 4-year university. I meet with students and explain the requirements, discuss timelines and develop a comprehensive Student Educational Plan (SEP) with them. In the same appointment, I also provide them with campus resources, and discuss VA-related programs related to their education benefits.
Through intrusive counseling, I also find out if the student veteran is in need of housing, basic needs, mental health services, VA enrollment, or VA claims assistance. In a follow up email, I provide links to resources and a warm hand-off to veteran service providers or campus programs. No one student will figure out how to graduate or transfer on their own. They don’t need to. Our VRC staff and campus community is on their team. My first question to any student is, “What’s our goal? Are we planning to earn an AA, transfer, not sure? Let’s figure out what we need and how we’ll get there.” From the beginning, the student veteran and I are partners in their education, and students appreciate the support.
Military Credit for Prior Learning (MilCPL) has become a topic of action within California’s public institutions of higher learning. MilCPL is also state legislation requiring colleges and universities to offer military credit. From the Joint Service Transcript, veterans and service members could potentially earn up to 30 units of general education, major requirements and electives to fulfill certificate, local degrees and transfer requirements. It’s up to each campus to articulate coursework with ACE reviewed military experience on a JST. With less time spent taking college courses that are equivalent to their military experience, and shorter completion pathways, veterans will be able to save and use their VA education benefits towards graduate school. So in the next five years, I believe that with MilCPL, more veterans will access post-baccalaureate degree opportunities, potentially debt-free if funded by their VA education benefits. I am hopeful MilCPL will one day be supported through federal legislation as well.
My advice is to network, find a mentor(s) and build opportunities for yourself. Never stop learning, and never cease to use innovative and forward thinking to create change. I learn something new every day about the students I serve by listening and asking questions. I continually learn from my colleagues both on and off campus, and always think of how our VRC and campus may better serve our students. When I first started, I didn’t know anything about the VA, veteran benefits, the veteran transition, their needs, nor most importantly, how to properly support their experience in higher education. Find your passion. Your calling. Keep learning, choose to lead and advocate for what matters most to you about what you do.