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Meet Our Veterans
Students Honored at PTK All-California Awards

Thursday, April 07, 2011
Left to Right: Nicholas Stewart, Assemblyman Jim Silva, and Mikhail Cook
Orange Coast College students Mikhail Cook and Nicholas Stewart were honored at the Phi Theta Kappa All-California Team Awards Luncheon for their outstanding academic performance and service to the college and community.
meet_vet_2.bmpThe luncheon took place last month in Sacramento, where the students met with Assemblyman Jim Silva and Senator Tom Harman.
Mikhail, who lives in Costa Mesa, enrolled at OCC two years ago after pursuing a corporate career and unsuccessfully trying to find capital to finance his own technical company. Without a college education, he realized he wouldn't be able to command the salary he needed to provide for his wife and two small children, ages two and three. Going back to school “made a lot of sense,” he said.
Mikhail achieved a 3.84 GPA while he was also working fulltime as a consultant and participating in campus leadership activities. He is waiting to hear from the University of Southern California where he hopes to pursue a degree in business administration with an emphasis on entrepreneurship this fall. He has also applied to UC Irvine and Chapman University.
“I’ve had some great teachers and spent a lot of time with them,” Mikhail said, especially Bill McClure, Dan Kuo and Terry Timmins. He said he is also indebted to Terry Scarbrough, Honors Program coordinator, for her assistance.
Nicholas Stewart, originally from Mansfield, Ohio, is a Marine Corps veteran who returned to school after serving in the military for four years, including three deployments in Iraq. He was stationed in Camp Pendleton and moved to Costa Mesa when he enrolled at OCC. With a 3.81 GPA, he plans to study physical therapy at University of Southern California or athletic training at San Diego State University.
“As a veteran student, transitioning back as a full-time student was a bit intimidating,” Nicholas said. “Due to the amazing Veteran Services department and staff, along with the rest of the resourceful–and patient–personnel that work in Watson Hall, I have been guided along a very exciting journey of higher education here at OCC.
Nicholas also appreciates the support he received from Veterans Services staff members, Tom Choe and Jason Sparling. He credits Midge Hill, Veterans Services certifying official, for inspiring him to “go big” and achieve his academic goals, and to faculty member Rendell Drew for his support.
Both Mikhail and Nicholas combined leadership activities with their academic achievement.
During the past two years, Mikhail has served as vice president of Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society that recognizes academic achievement of two-year college students. He is also president of Umoja, an organization dedicated to enhancing the cultural and educational experiences of African American and other students. In November, OCC was the site of Southern California’s 2010 Umoja conference for community colleges.
He also served for a time on ASOCC's Fiscal Affairs Council and was chairman of the OCC Pasta Drive, which gathered enough pasta to feed 35,000 people.
Nicholas was president of Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society and a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, where he served as chairman of the Fellowship Hallmark. He also worked for a semester in OCC’s Veterans Services Office.
Each two-year college in California may nominate two students per campus to the All-USA Academic Team. Students from California nominated to the national team comprise the All-California Academic Team.
Navy Vet Overcomes Obstacles to Reach Academic Goals

Friday, November 05, 2010

meet_vet_4.bmpGot a question for Poly Chuong? You can email him at
Two short years ago, the future didn’t look very bright for Poly Chuong.
Depressed by the tragic deaths of his best friend who was killed in Iraq and the senseless car accident that took the life of his fiancé, the Navy veteran turned to cocaine for relief. His drug habit soon cost him his job and his apartment.
“In 2008 I was homeless, living out of my car, and then the car was repossessed,” Chuong said. “It wasn’t until I lost everything that I realized how much I needed my family and how selfish I was.”
At rock bottom, he returned home to his mother and promised to start a new life. His pledge brought him to the doors of Orange Coast College, where was determined to achieve his dream of transferring to the University of Southern California.
These days, Chuong is wearing cardinal and gold, the colors of the USC Trojan football team. Soon he will be cheering for his favorite team as a student in the USC Marshall School of Business, starting this spring.
Life was never easy for the OCC alumnus. His pregnant mother, brother, aunt and uncle were survivors of Cambodia’s killing fields during the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The rest of his family was slaughtered. Chuong was born in a Red Cross tent in a Thailand refugee camp.
The family arrived in the United States in 1983 as war refugees. Chuong grew up in Long Beach in the 1980s in a rough neighborhood, the only place the family could afford to live.
With no father, Chuong’s mother and aunt worked multiple jobs. “We lived in some of the roughest areas; they were gang invested,” Chuong said. Gang members constantly bullied Chuong and his brother, but somehow they managed to stay in school and survive.
With few options when he graduated from high school, Chuong decided to enlist in the Navy. He served for eight years.
Once he started classes at OCC in spring 2009, Chuong was determined to succeed. He achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He finished his associate degree in three semesters, always taking more than a “full load” of credits.
“From the first, I was determined to make it to USC,” Chuong said. He credits OCC accounting instructor Jeanne Neil for sparking his interest in his planned major, forensic accounting, which investigates corporate fraud.
“OCC faculty are amazing,” Chuong said. “It’s personal here. They give you the tools, but you have to pick up the hammer and use it.”
He is also thankful to Tom Choe and Midge Hill in the OCC Veterans Services Office for helping him the first day he walked onto campus. “They were so warm and welcoming,” Chuong said. “I didn’t have income, and I didn’t know how to make it happen. They walked me through it all.”
Chuong advises students to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities that can be found at community colleges. “Community college is your ticket into the Columbias and into the Harvards…your performance here will help you achieve your dreams.
“If you want to shoot for the top tier universities, you have to perform like a top tier student,” he added.

Thursday, November 04, 2010
A parade of colorful flags–one for each branch of the service–marks the entrance to the Orange Coast College Veterans Services Office, making it easy for new student veterans to find for the first time.
Tucked in the back of the first floor of Watson Hall, OCC’s bustling enrollment center, Veterans Services assists more than 500 student veterans with paperwork, counseling, financial aid, enrollment, employment and residency issues.  meet_vet_5.bmp

Oliver Haller (left), Ian Meagher (right)
The flags are new, a gift from Steve Spriggs, Commander of American Legion Newport Harbor Post 291, according to Midge Hill, OCC’s chief veteran certifying official.
Thanks to the efforts of the Veterans Services Office, OCC recently was named a Military Friendly School for the second year. Coast ranks among the top 15% of 7,000 colleges universities and trade schools evaluated in a national survey by G.I. Jobs Magazine.
The number of veterans attending OCC has increased dramatically since Aug. 1, 2009, when benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect. Educational support is provided for 36 months, the equivalent of four years of school.
The Veterans Administration covers 100% of tuition costs and fees at public institutions, a $1,000 annual stipend for books, and a $2,000 monthly housing allowance for full-time students. The funds are also tax exempt.
Many veterans are taking advantage of the educational benefits, and they have high praise for Hill and her staff. Ian Meagher, 26, and Oliver Haller, 25, both work in the office as work-study students.
Meagher, who lives in Huntington Beach, was a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton. He served in Iraq for one year. “OCC Vets Services told me exactly what I needed to do,” he said. “The paperwork can be overwhelming. Having everything right here made it easy.”
Once he earns his Associate in Arts degree, the student veteran plans to study business administration at UC Irvine or Cal State Fullerton.
Haller, with the Marines for five years in Cherry Point, NJ, also plans to transfer. He has his sights set on UC Irvine, where he plans to be an economics major. Born in England, Haller moved to the United States with his family when he was seven years old. The Costa Mesa resident became a United States citizen one month before his military discharge.
Kurt Griffis, 24, also landed at OCC after serving with the Marines in Camp Pendleton. He was deployed to Iraq twice during his four-years of service. Recently married, the student veteran lives in Irvine. Enrolling in college and applying for his veterans’ benefits was “really easy,” he reported. Thanks to OCC Veterans Services, “it was a very smooth transition.”
James. Jessica and Olivia Garciameet_vet_6_James, Jessica, Olivia.bmp
Griffis is completing general education credits while he is on the waiting list for OCC’s popular radiologic technology program. Eventually he plans to transfer. The student is considering Cal State Dominguez Hills because it offers a radiologic technology program with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Santa Ana residents Jessica and James Garcia met while they were specialists in the Army stationed at Fort Lewis, WA. Recently discharged, the they have an 8-month-old daughter, Olivia.
James hopes to study chemical engineering at Cal State Pomona, and Jessica has applied to UC Irvine, where she will major in political science. James, who missed Olivia’s birth while he was deployed in Afghanistan, has already completed four semesters of college at University of Houston.
Jessica is a returning student. A graduate of Saddleback High School, she finished two semesters at OCC before entering the military. This time around, she admits she is a better, more focused student. “You mature a lot in the military,” she explained.
Both are indebted to the OCC Veterans Services Office for helping them return to school. “I love Midge,” James said. “She’s amazing.”
Marine veteran Phonexay Udom echoed their praise. “Midge and the folks at the Veterans Services Office are doing an awesome job.”
Udom, who served for four years, deployed with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ship, Tarawa. Although he enrolled late, Hill was able to help him find late-start classes and openings in classes at Golden West and Coastline. Veterans Services “did their best in guiding me through registration very quickly.”
Udom and his wife of two years reside in Long Beach. He plans to transfer to Chapman University, where he will study business administration and finance.
IRAQ Veteran Will Be Student Speaker at OCC'S 62nd Commencement

Thursday, May 13, 2010meet_vet7_tommy_Melendi.bmp

Tommy Melendi, an Iraq veteran who used his military service in the Marines to open doors wide to education will be the student speaker at Orange Coast College’s 62nd Annual Commencement Ceremony. The event will be held on Thursday, May 27th at 5:30 p.m. at Pacific Amphitheatre.
When he was 18, Tommy Melendi, now 25, joined the Marines and quickly volunteered to serve in Iraq. “I was gung ho, ready to go,” he said, “and I knew the Marines would give me discipline.”
Tommy quickly proved to be a leader. He advanced to the rank of sergeant within three years, a promotion that typically takes five or six years for most recruits.
meet_vet_8_missil.bmpHe was stationed in Fallujah, one of the hotbeds of military fighting during the war. Tommy worked for the supply unit, hauling ammunition and equipment for the troops. He admits he felt invincible until he witnessed the death of one of his close friends. “He was the clown of the unit,” Tommy recalls. “ Everyone loved him.”
An average student in high school with a 2.7 GPA, Tommy admits, “I just got by.” However, he always planned to continue his education, and he saw the opportunity to attend a California community college while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.
He visited OCC with a friend and was attracted by the large variety of academic programs and the attractive campus. He found a room to rent close to campus in Costa Mesa and part-time employment working for his landlord’s crystal and china business.
The young Marine quickly focused on academics. He achieved a perfect 4.0 for the first two semesters, and at the suggestion of counselor Carol Barnes, joined the honors program. An honors graduate, Tommy has a GPA of 3.87 and will attend UC Irvine in the fall. He plans to major in business and become an entrepreneur like his father.
Tommy’s parents and younger sister live in Arizona, but he lived in Brooklyn, NY, with his family until he was 15. An older sister lives in New York, and an older brother resides in New Jersey.
Tommy recommends OCC’s honors program for its stimulating curriculum and opportunities to transfer to selective four-year universities. “It’s your golden ticket to get where you want to go.” He enjoyed challenging classes and learning with fellow students who worked hard. “It’s a different atmosphere,” he added.
While he was in the Marines, Tommy narrated several parades and military ceremonies. He decided to try out to be OCC’s student speaker at commencement. It will be the largest audience he has ever faced. “I’m excited,” he said, “the more the merrier.”
In his commencement speech, entitled “The First Quarter Century,” Tommy expresses appreciation for his time at Coast. “Orange Coast College opened doors for me and after I walked through, I came out on the other side with a network of friends and a group of professors who truly care about my future.”