Richard Gough, president of Technical College of the Lowcountry, says people shouldn’t be surprised.
His championing of military students — veterans and those on active duty and their dependents — and programs and services geared toward them isn’t just a result of his own service, 24 years in the Marine Corps.
His desire to recruit and retain those students isn’t solely motivated by feelings of “the right thing to do.”
And his drive to make military affairs a cornerstone of the college’s future isn’t an attempt to turn the college into The Citadel.
No — in his mind, Beaufort County’s three military installations, the college’s location between aerospace manufacturing hubs in Savannah and Charleston and the sizable number of young servicemen and women who retire each year in the area — a potential workforce that, if properly trained, can stay in the county, pay taxes and bolster the economy — means an investment in military students is an investment in the region’s future.
And, right now, their tuition-and-fees dollars are an important revenue stream for the college.
For the 2015-16 academic year, active-duty personnel, those not on active duty (including retired veterans) and veterans’ dependents comprise about 18 percent of the college’s total enrollment of 3,330 students, according to data provided by the institution.
In 2012-13, the last full academic year before Gough’s arrival, those students made up 12 percent of the 3,379-member student body.
A year earlier, when the college saw its largest enrollment — 3,651 — in the past five years, military students and their dependents comprised just 8 percent of the population.
Gough’s championing of student veterans and military programs is one of “four pillars” he cited Tuesday as priorities for the college.
The others are:
▪ Health sciences programs — he’d like add offerings for dental hygiene and pharmacy technician coursework.
▪ Career and vocation programs — he noted the demand for plumbers, carpenters and welders and said he wanted to focus on growing a culinary program.
▪ The forthcoming Jasper Port, which will create demand for classes in logistics, truck driving, materials handling and warehouse management, among others.
“I want to be careful not to overstate it,” Gough said of the emphasis on military initiatives at the college. “We’re not trying to be another Citadel or something like that, nor would I want to be, but I have a heart for that — I know the unique challenges military families face. ... I want to keep them here in the Lowcountry.”
On Tuesday, students Nathaniel Robinson and Angel Puebla worked on computers in the college’s Veterans Resource Center, which celebrated its first birthday in November.
Robinson, of St. Helena Island, retired from the Navy in 1988 and is working on a degree in paralegal studies.
Puebla, a Marine Corps reservist working toward his associate degree in science, hails from Hilton Head Island. They like the resource center, they said, because it’s nice to be around like-minded people who’ve had similar life experiences.
“I’ve seen a lot more involvement in community activities,” Robinson said, referencing recent events such as a barbecue and 5K race the center helped coordinate. “Before, we never had anything like that.”
Director of Veterans Services Christy Welsch-Copeland, who runs the resource center, said the college’s Student Veterans of America chapter, at 57 members, is the largest student organization on campus — the largest in the school’s history.
And while Gough has been supportive of her efforts, she said, he wanted to see the research on veterans resource centers before establishing one.
“It wasn’t like it was a ‘Big high-five-now-go-do-this’ (attitude),” Welsch-Copeland, herself an Army veteran, said, explaining she had to sell Gough on the idea.
Likewise, Gough is still having to sell his vision to some faculty and staff at the college.
“Our budget is tight,” Gough said, “and when our enrollment is flat or down, you have belt tightening.
“And would I like to hire more full-time faculty? Yes. And do I expect to keep that as a priority as I move forward? Yes. But I think what people see is that I’m adding people on the military side because I have money to do it, and I’m not doing it on the arts-and-sciences side or on the staffing side, and it feels unfair. But it’s just the way the money is colored.”
That money is the $500,000 in state appropriations he landed for military programming efforts — recurring money secured with the help of Statehouse Reps. Bill Herbkersman and Shannon Erickson, and S.C. Sen. Tom Davis.
“It may feel like they’re getting a lot of attention, and they are,” Gough said of the military students. “But a rising tide raises all ships.”
Sean Henrickson, vice president of continuing education and workforce development and director of military affairs — a new title brought about in a recent reorganization — has plans to bolster the college’s aviation programs, add online degree programs and establish an emergency medical technician program.
“The No. 1 renewable resource in our region is our transitioning military folks,” Henrickson, a former Marine Corps aviator, said.
The EMT program is designed to help veterans with medical experience transition to civilian healthcare roles without having to do redundant coursework.
He looks to add a full-time faculty position in the aviation program, which is composed primarily of military students.
And the online degree offerings are geared toward, among others, military personnel who want to start their education in Beaufort County and continue it when they’re assigned to other bases.
At a recent meeting with the college’s commissioners, Gough — who calls himself an old school, face-to-face classroom kind of guy, called the online program offerings the future of the college.