By Morgan Smith
Life hasn’t been easy for Gregory Sykes. Serving in the military more than 30 years ago, the 56-year-old Navy veteran has spent much of his life just working to make ends meet, at times bouncing from one job to the next.
But thanks to a government-approved retraining program for veterans, and the help of the new Howard R. Levine Veterans Resource Center at Central Piedmont Community College’s Levine Campus in Matthews, Sykes is making a brighter future.
Sykes visits the new center to meet with Christopher Lloyd, the center’s counselor who not only advises veteran students on scheduling and classes, but also is a licensed counselor to help veterans in their personal lives.
An Air Force veteran himself, Lloyd has a way of relating to his clients.
“It is very beneficial that he is a veteran. I do full-time school, and I work (two jobs), as well,” Sykes said. “During my days off, I have counseling sessions with Chris. We just talk about life – where I’m going, where I need to be and how to control my anger.”
The center opened its doors last spring, just in time for summer sessions to begin. The new facility, located on the third floor, provides counseling services, academic success services and support, advising and space for veterans to study and relax between classes. CPCC used a $400,000 grant from the Howard R. Levine Foundation to establish the center and create the Howard R. Levine Veterans Scholarship Fund.
Sykes expects to graduate in the spring with an associate’s degree in air condition and refrigeration technology. He said working with the Veterans Resource Center has already increased his confidence level, helping him to deal with the stress from his current high demanding job. Sykes works as a maintenance technician at McDonald’s and also in customer service at Chick-fil-A.
But the services also are preparing him for a better life, he said, including “Employability and (my) social life.”
“I feel better about myself,” Sykes said. “Going into business for myself is a long-term goal. I just want to give back to the community.”
Jason Mercado, an associate at the center, said the Levine Campus has seen the veteran population grow rapidly in recent years, creating a need for the campus to have more resources for veterans seeking counseling and more specialized veteran services.
While the majority of the veteran population at Levine seems to be younger veterans who are more tech-savvy, Mercado said the facility, which also provides computer training in the veteran computer lab, allows veterans to have a space of their own to get the help they need to succeed.
“We provide personal counseling, which is a lot different from the normal advising counselors who provide education benefits and what curriculum they should take,” Mercado said. “Chris Lloyd can talk to our students about post-traumatic stress disorder. He has many reoccurring students who come every week to talk about assimilating back into civilian life after leaving the military.”
Mercado said the center is a way to serve the veterans for serving their country, he said, adding CPCC is just trying to give back by promoting better academic success in the veteran community. With a staff of mostly veterans, employees at the center have the knowledge and resources to also help advise veterans on using their benefits from the federal Veterans Association. Though they may not have all the answers, Mercado said, they know where to find the answers.
“We understand what they are going through,” Mercado said. “We want them to know that educational benefits for veterans is not a privilege — it’s an entitlement.”