The Heights

Updated: September 12, 2016


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Foothill retiree leaves vibrant legacy for student-veterans

On a cloudy April afternoon, some 20 Foothill College student-veterans stood at attention as the American flag was retired from an on-campus flagpole. They lovingly folded the flag and later presented it to Foothill’s Veterans Program Specialist Carmela Xuereb, the woman whose commitment and dedication to student-veterans has profoundly impacted the lives of men and women who have returned to Foothill after completing military service. This spring, Xuereb will retire but her legacy of nurturing support for student-veterans continues to flourish.

Hired in 1989 as a financial aid assistant, Xuereb excelled at helping students complete piles of state and federal aid paperwork to help fund their college education. Based on her familiarity with state and federal benefit programs, college leaders felt Xuereb would also excel at guiding Foothill’s student-veterans through G.I. Bill-related requirements and processes to ensure that veterans received the educational benefits for which they qualified.

Xuereb points to the per-quarter increase in Foothill’s certified student-veteran population from 60 students in 1994 to more than 250 students in 2016 as a thrilling opportunity to help student-veterans, most of whom are ages 23 to 44, transform their lives.

“These men and women have given up their youth, and in many cases their health, to serve,” she says. “Entire families have made sacrifices to support their soldiers. Throughout my career and because I observed how poorly Vietnam-era veterans were treated, I’ve been determined to make certain that student-veterans are never made to feel like second-class citizens. As a college, our role is to educate and serve each student to the fullest, regardless of their demographic category. They all deserve to receive a high-quality education and respect.”

Xuereb’s maternal guidance and genuine compassion combined with her knowledge of accessing government resources has directly contributed to the popularly of the college’s veterans programs, as well as the creation of an on-campus Veterans Resource Center (VRC). Opened in 2010, Foothill’s VRC provides veterans with a successful transition to academic studies and meets the unique needs of veterans, active duty personnel, reservists and military families. GI Jobs magazine has listed Foothill College in the top 15 percent of U.S. colleges that offer the best experience for military students. 

“Challenging and constantly changing, my assignment began with piles of paperwork, but behind the government forms and military regulations, there are real people,” she says. “This is your son. This could be your daughter. This is a human being. They aren’t making extraordinary demands. They just need a little help to navigate the system. And that’s what has been so rewarding about my work.”

Behind the paperwork, forms and DD214s, it’s working closely with students that has given meaning to Xuereb’s 27-year Foothill career. “Our student-veterans are people, and I consider them all to be my kids,” she says. “I’ve seen them grow as individuals and as students, and as they get married and become parents themselves. To know that I’ve played a small role in their success in school, in their jobs, and in their lives is the greatest reward. When they stop by to visit the VRC, they’re beaming proud to share that they’ve earned associate, bachelor’s and even master’s degrees.”

Arkansas native Jimmy Justice, who served two tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a U.S. Marine Corps infantryman, came to Foothill College at his wife’s recommendation. But it was Xuereb’s guidance and mentoring that helped him feel comfortable in his new role as a student and civilian.

“From my very first day on the Foothill campus, Carmela has been there to help me,” Justice says. “She led me almost by the hand to get my enrollment process started. She was also able to get a feel for my learning style and made recommendations for teachers and courses that might be a good fit for me.

“I didn’t expect this level of support for a student-veteran from a college but it’s gratifying to know that assisting veterans is an important priority at Foothill. By offering us the VRC, the college and Carmela have given us the opportunity to transition from military life to our civilian lives–to fit in. Not a lot of people have been through what we have, but at this college that’s okay. We’re encouraged to be ourselves in class, on campus and in the VRC.”

Xuereb is quick to point out that supporting student-veterans doesn’t mean coddling them. At its core, her role has been to guide student-vets to self-sufficiency, encourage them when they stumble, help them find balance as they trade military life for civilian life, and support them as they progress through college coursework in pursuit of rewarding careers and academic degrees.

“I’m here to help, support and guide,” she says. “But it’s the students who must make the realization that it’s okay to ask for help, particularly when they’re feeling overwhelmed with transitioning from the military to a less regimented lifestyle. Sometimes our veterans need to take a break before they commit to an academically rigorous schedule. And that’s okay. When that veteran leaves our campus, he knows that our program and support services are available when he’s ready to return. Frequently, the veteran will come back, successfully complete educational goals at Foothill and transfer to a university to purse an advanced degree and/or enter the workforce with the knowledge, skills and training for a rewarding career, and get back to the business of living and loving their lives. I won’t lie, on those occasions, the mom in me is button-bursting proud of their achievements,” she says as tears well up in her eyes.

And Xuereb has much to be proud of. For more than two decades, she’s watched struggling vets hit their stride at Foothill and transfer to great schools such as UC Berkeley, UC Davis, San Jose State University, University of San Francisco, Columbia College Chicago and many others. Additionally, she’s watched Foothill student-veterans complete their studies and find employment in a variety of professional fields, including accounting, business administration, education, engineering, dental assisting and hygiene, graphic design, nursing, primary care, radiological technology, respiratory therapy and others.

“Carmela is the kindhearted commander of Foothill’s veterans program and we salute her commitment to our student-veterans, whom she has lovingly served for so many years,” says Foothill College Vice President of Student Services Denise Swett, Ed.D. “Although she is retiring, her presence will continue to make a positive impact on student-veterans, their families, and our community.”

Most students who participated in the early days of Foothill’s veterans program were from the Vietnam War era. At the time, limited support services included priority registration and an occasional scholarship. Today, Foothill’s vibrant program includes services for student-veterans, active duty, selected reserve and National Guard service members, as well as their spouses and children. Program highlights include financial aid, textbook loans and vouchers, assistive technology devices, academic and personal counseling, mind and body wellness, companion animal resources, scholarships, and the on-campus Veterans Resource Center.

“One of the most important facets of the VRC is its role as a comfortable space for veterans to meet up, discuss their classes, share success strategies, and talk about their challenges acclimating to college life,” Xuereb says. “Friendships forged in the VRC often give student-vets the confidence to take classes together and form study groups. They also enrich the total college classroom experience. They bring a unique perspective and maturity to academic discourse, and contribute wisdom from their life experiences that can’t be found in a textbook.”

Student-veterans have needs that are different than the needs of a typical college student, Xuereb says. Some arrive at Foothill enduring PTSD symptoms, body tremors, sensitivity to sound or difficulty concentrating. Through a variety of on-campus support services, Foothill student-veterans learn coping strategies for the classroom so that they can experience student success and create meaningful academic, career and life goals.

Under Xuereb’s leadership, Foothill’s program has grown through outreach activities sponsored by local elected officials, including Congresswomen Jackie Speier and Anna G. Eshoo, as well as influential groups such as Los Altos Rotary, Blue Star Mothers of America, Patriot Riders of America, 63rd Regional Support Command at Moffett Field and Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Office–all with the goal of helping student-veterans receive the benefits they’re entitled to. In fact, U.S. Army Reserve Brigadier General Mitchell R. Chitwood presented certificates of appreciation to Los Altos Rotary and Foothill College for outstanding commitment to serving veterans and their families during a visit to the Foothill campus in 2013.

Some of the most ardent support for Foothill’s student-veterans and its VRC has come from the visionary men and women of Los Altos Rotary. In the six years that Rotary has partnered with Foothill, more than $210,000 has been raised to benefit Foothill College student-veterans.

In addition to providing Foothill student-veterans with Live Scribe assistive technology devices, the local organization continues to raise funds to support the Friends of American Veterans Scholarship, which was founded to honor Los Altos native son USMC Capt. Matt Manoukian, who was killed while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan in 2012. The scholarship is exclusively awarded to Foothill veteran-students.

Los Altos Rotary began its partnership with Foothill’s veterans program in 2010, when Rotarians Mona Armistead and Paul Schultz approached Xuereb to determine how both groups could mutually support student-veterans. This shared commitment has flourished and inspired more Rotarians, including Ron Labetich, Jack Kelly, Jerry Moison and Tracie Murray to raise funds to support scholarships, assistive technology and book vouchers for student-veterans.

Other visionary donors who have contributed funds to support Foothill’s student-veterans include American Legion Los Altos Post 558, Los Altos Town Crier Holiday Fund, San Jose Mercury News, Sereno Group, Woman's Club of Palo Alto, and numerous individual donors.

“Carmela is family, she was even a guest at my wedding,” Justice says. “She’s the most kind, caring person I’ve ever met. She helped me work through difficult situations, has been a great mentor, has given the VRC a comfortable structure, and has made me and so many other student-veterans feel comfortable on campus.”

And while Xuereb is looking forward to retirement, helping student-veterans will always be her priority. “Although my role is changing, my student-veterans–my kids–will always be in my heart,” she says. “They’re part of my family, and for me, family is forever.”

To learn more about Foothill’s veterans program and the VRC, visit foothill.edu/vet/, call (650) 949-7912, e-mail contactvrc@fhda.edu or stop by Room 5403.

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