SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A program that helps veterans get a college degree has expanded thanks to a federal grant.

Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) received a $1.4 million grant for its Veterans Upward Bound program. The program started back in 2017 at OTC. But, OTC only had enough funds to serve Greene County veterans.

“We learned very quickly there was a lot of need and that there were actually veterans coming in from other counties who were seeking services that we just had not anticipated,” Director Michelle Ciesielski said. “Our goal, we would like to, you know, double the amount of people we helped in the past years.”

Ciesielski said OTC serves any veteran that walks through the door looking for help. If someone is looking to get a college degree, they first have to apply.

“From there we’ll contact them or they can come in person and meet with us and talk about the program and then we do an intake where we kind of assess their goals because it’s all about what they want to do,” Ciesielski said.

Veterans Upward Bound is free to veterans. So far, the program has helped a total of 325 veterans. Veterans can also get tutoring, accommodations for testing, and help with travel while in the program.

“I was kind of nervous at the idea because I feel I felt like school may have changed in a way that I wouldn’t understand anymore,” Brian Baker said. Baker served in the military and recently joined the Veterans Upward Bound Program. “I chose to possibly go to school so I can seek higher enrichment, mainly because when I got out, my daughter was born freshly married as well. We needed more more money than minimum wage could provide at the time.”

Baker started taking classes this semester at OTC. He is looking to go into a cybersecurity job once he gets his associate’s degree.

“I hope to steer other servicemembers like myself to the program so that way, instead of flying in from military service completely blind, [they] will be able to make a career choice and find that career path that they feel like going into,” Baker said.

Baker was not the only veteran intimidated to go back to school after serving.

“The environment was different than what I was used to being in the army,” Matt Rink said. He served in the army for 22 years. “I didn’t know how to carry myself in a new public setting such as college. And the first week was very rough, and I didn’t have access to veterans up or down because I hadn’t been here yet.”

Rink did not qualify for the program when he came to OTC because he lived in Douglas county. Now, he feels grateful other Douglas county veterans have access to the program.

“We have a large veteran population here at OTC and to only be able to help a fraction of them is doing the process in a hole, an injustice,” Rink said. Although he’s not in Veterans Upward Bound, Rink is taking classes to get three degrees in Agriculture. “Being able to expand to those 15 counties. You’re talking possibly hundreds of veterans here at this school being able to get all the same kind of help, all the same kind of access things that they wouldn’t normally have, just being by themselves and not being a resident.”

If someone doesn’t qualify, program leaders said they are more than happy to help a veteran with whatever they need.

“Sometimes a veteran comes in and just wants help with, you know, the application or filling out their FAFSA and so that’s pretty easy to do,” Ciesielski said. “We’ve even helped one veteran who just wanted to be a phlebotomist. So we helped him, you know, sign up for that one class and get in and become a phlebotomist and get out. So whatever we can do to help a veteran move on to their next step in life.”

Veterans can apply for Veterans Upward Bound on OTC’s website.