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My Story Started at GRCC: CJ Norton shares how Michigan Reconnect, Veterans Center helping him work toward engineering degree

May 30, 2022, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name.

“The Veterans Center is always my first stop when I get to campus,” said CJ Norton, who served in the U.S. Marines and is now enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College. “When you meet another veteran there for the first time, it’s like an instant connection … you know you’ve gone through similar circumstances.”

Start at GRCC and go anywhere. Every student has a story to tell about how GRCC gave them the education and opportunity to be successful, with support services available to help them through.

GRCC’s new Veterans Center on level G2 of Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall opened in October to serve as a single point of contact for students who served in the military, connecting veterans with campus resources, including financial aid, advising and disability support.

It’s also a place to call their own on campus.

“The other veterans I’ve met there have been great. I met another former Marine who I studied physics with, and another guy who I work out with every morning I’m on campus,” said 26-year-old Norton, of Wyoming.

Norton enlisted in the Marines at age 17, serving four years as an embarkation logistics specialist at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. After his 2016 discharge, he returned to West Michigan and tried GRCC for the first time.

“I was still sort of transitioning from the military and I just couldn’t handle college,” he said.

After years working security, waiting tables and odd jobs in warehouses, Norton decided to follow in the tracks of a childhood friend pursuing an engineering degree. He re-enrolled at GRCC in 2019 and is making progress toward his own engineering degree.

“I’m super happy with how I’m doing in school now,” he said.

A big part of that is thanks to GRCC’s Veterans Services team, which Norton said goes above and beyond the call of duty to support military and veteran students at every stage of their academic journeys. It was the Veterans Services staff that told Norton about Michigan Reconnect.

Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to ensure that Michiganders who are 25 or older and don’t have a college degree have an opportunity to earn an associate degree or skills certificate, with the cost of in-district tuition covered.  

“As soon as they told me about Michigan Reconnect, I applied for the scholarship and immediately qualified. It was a huge weight off my shoulders,” said Norton, who’s transferring to Grand Valley State University this fall to continue his engineering degree.

The Veterans Center is helping GRCC expand its partnerships with state and local veterans’ agencies, helping students access benefits and support in the community. It’s also making veterans in the community aware of opportunities at GRCC to earn credits for degrees or transfer and in-demand career skills.

Norton said the center fills different needs for veterans.

“If you want to go there and study, you can study,” he said. “If you want to talk with another vet, you can do that. If you want to play video games with a buddy, you can do that. There are people there to help you in whatever you might need.

“I see it as such a bright light, and I feel like if other veterans go in there they’ll feel the same way.”

Students can connect with the Veterans Center by phone at (616) 234-2578, and by email at veterans@grcc.edu. Additional information is available online at grcc.edu/veterans

This story was reported by Beth McKenna.

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