Veteran and student mentor Bryan Sanderson receives national recognition for launching innovative Students SOS peer support program
By Janice O’Connor
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO OVERCOME THE OBSTACLES THAT OFTEN STAND BETWEEN A STUDENT AND A COLLEGE DEGREE? Persistence, guidance from others, and a steady eye on the prize. Just ask Bryan Sanderson. He’s not only been there, he has created a campus support program that is helping other Mount Wachusett Community College students achieve academic, career and personal success.
Suddenly unemployed? Transitioning from the military to the classroom? Juggling a hectic home life? Wondering how to pay for college – and once there, how you’ll ever pass courses in your most challenging subject area, be it math, English or science?
These are some of the challenges Sanderson faced, and he wants students in distress to send out an SOS signal. He and other peer mentors will gladly respond.
After learning that many community college students struggle to stay in school for one reason or another, Sanderson crafted a success plan for himself, and then made it his mission to establish MWCC’s new Students Serving Our Students office (Students SOS), located within the college’s Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement.
During its first semester, nearly 450 students tapped into the available resources and support. Student mentors in the SOS office provide peers with information, referrals, and hands-on assistance with life issues that are posing barriers to their academic success, such as childcare, transportation issues, financial assistance, food assistance, housing and heating oil assistance, as well as guidance for on-campus tutoring and other support services.
“In the military, you’re always looking out for the person next to you,” says Sanderson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
“You’re always taught to have your battle buddy. You had to trust the guy next to you to look out for you and you had to look out for him. And that’s what we do in the SOS office. Students come to us with an issue or several issues. We’re not counselors, but we put on a counselor hat because we want to help them figure out the root problem that is keeping them from being successful.”
The Lunenburg resident earned national recognition for his initiative. In March, Sanderson received the Newman Civic Fellow Award from Campus Compact, which promotes student involvement in community and service learning programs. Sanderson was among 181 students across the country honored with the award.
Sanderson enlisted in the Marines out of high school and following four years of military service, worked as a carpenter for about two decades. When the economy tanked in 2008, he found himself among the unemployed.
A dedicated husband, father of three young girls, and volunteer soccer coach, Sanderson decided to enroll at MWCC to pursue a degree in Human Services, and quickly became a highly engaged role model on campus, including through his involvement with the college’s Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success.
“I think a lot of people my age or even younger think it’s too late to go to college,” Sanderson says. “It’s never too late to improve your situation. If that means going back to school after so many years, it’s not too late. People my age have more to offer because of that life experience.”
He has made the President’s List and Dean’s List for his academic achievements and has also served as a member of the Commonwealth Corps, as a student ambassador on campus, as a peer mentor for fellow veterans, and as an officer in the Veterans Group, which is a chapter of the Student Veterans of America organization. After earning his associate degree in May 2014, he plans to pursue his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field.
“We are extremely proud of Bryan for his leadership on campus and in the community, and are delighted that he has been recognized with the distinguished Newman Civic Fellow Award,” President Daniel M. Asquino says. “As a student leader at Mount Wachusett, Bryan has served in a variety of capacities and works tirelessly on behalf of others because he has a true passion for helping others.”
MWCC Criminal Justice student Andrew Brunell, a Marine Corps veteran of the Afghanistan war, considers Sanderson a mentor and friend. “He helped me navigate what’s what around here as well as in my personal life. He helped me figure out what I wanted in life.”
“What has set Bryan apart is his interest in assisting other students in achieving their dreams,” says Fagan Forhan, Director of Experiential Learning Opportunities and Civic Engagement at MWCC. “Bryan is truly dedicated to improving the community he calls home. He serves as a motivator to others and inspires everyone he encounters to always be the best they can be.”