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Coastal Carolina Community College supports career transitions for service members

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When Brian Vinciguerra was retiring from the Marine Corps in 2008, he wasn’t sure where his career was headed.

“I was kind of at a loss for what I was going to do,” said Vinciguerra, who served for 20 years. He checked out Coastal Carolina Community College’s Small Business Center and attended two Boots to Business seminars through the college.

Six years later, a hurricane interrupted Vinciguerra’s trip to Charlotte with his family. Stuck in Raleigh, he and his family checked out an escape room for the first time.

“Although we were miserable failures, we enjoyed the experience so much that it sparked in myself, my wife at the time, and both my daughters the idea to bring something like this to Jacksonville,” he said.

Because of the courses he took when retiring from the military, Coastal Carolina was the first place Vinciguerra thought to turn. “We went to every class that was offered,” he said.

Brian Vinciguerra said the Small Business Center was particularly helpful during the pandemic, with guidance on how to use grant funds. Liz Bell/EducationNC

In the span of 45 days, with the support of the Small Business Center, Vinciguerra found a building, formulated a business plan, and opened to the public. Cracked it! Escape Games is now seven years old — and has survived a hurricane and a pandemic.

“It’s through all of the tools and mentorship and lessons that I’ve gotten from coming here continually,” he said. “I’m like the plague that never goes away. I keep showing up here and saying more and more and more.”

Vinciguerra is not exaggerating. He has attended more than 100 seminars at Coastal Carolina and other community colleges across eastern North Carolina. He now teaches a class on Google business profiles.

Serving ‘those that serve us’

The Small Business Center is often the difference between veterans going back home or staying in Onslow County, said April Priester, the center’s director.

“Another one of my favorite entrepreneurs was this close to moving back to California and finally realized, ‘Look, you guys have helped me build a network of people that can support me, and I have everything I need here. I’m going to buy a house and stay,'” Priester said.

The center is just one of the many ways that Coastal Carolina serves its military community — a relationship President David Heatherly said is integral to the college’s identity. There are two bases in Onslow County: Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River.

Over the last 50 years, the bases and the community have become more intertwined, Heatherly said, and the college is an important link between them.

“In the past, a lot of those Marines or sailors might not have had a job upon leaving,” he said. The college’s transitioning military training teaches skills in high-demand industries. Since 2019, the college has offered SkillBridge programs, which allow service members within 180 days of leaving the military to come to the college as their active duty station.

In 14 weeks, students receive training and workforce-ready certifications.

“That’s typically an expense that is passed on to the employer,” said Ashley Gurganus, division chair for continuing education. “We’re taking that piece out and that makes them much more attractive once they graduate from these programs.”

In the most recent electrical linemen class, 20 students were active duty, Gurganus said. All 20 are now employed, seven locally.

A recent economic impact report found that the community college added $106.9 million in income to Onslow County in the 2019-20 fiscal year and supported one out of 50 jobs in its service area.

On the day EdNC visited, the next linemen class was learning CPR to work towards their Heart Safe certifications. The assistant teacher Seth Carlberg had graduated from the program while still active in the military in April. He worked in the industry and then came to work in the program.

“It’s amazing,” Carlberg said. “They provide a great example and provide all the certifications everyone needs. They got me a job immediately. My entire class all has jobs.”

Heatherly, who has been at the college for more than 30 years, said he has seen the relationship between the community and the military strengthen tremendously.

The college’s fire academy is another option in the SkillBridge program. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“There is not, in their opinions, a better community-military relationship than we have here,” he said he hears often from service members who have experience at bases all over the world. “So that is our identity.”

Despite recent enrollment declines from Hurricane Florence in 2019 and the pandemic, the college’s continuing education population — which is where the SkillsBridge program falls — has increased, Heatherly said.

“Our goal as a community college is to serve our community,” said Gurganus, who heads that portion of the college. “We’re fortunate to be able to serve those that serve us.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.