When College of the Canyons student Robbi Spencer was preparing for life after high school, she had an important choice to make.
“My mom told me, ‘You have one of four options: Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines,’ ” Spencer said.
After a rocky first year in college at Kent State University, Spencer eventually enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 19.
Today, more than 23 years after first making the decision to serve her country, Spencer has utilized her veteran benefits with the help of the COC Veterans Resource Center, and will soon be headed to UCLA.
“To be honest, my story isn’t one of those good old American soldier stories,” said Spencer, 42, who is set to graduate with honors from COC this spring with a 4.0 GPA.
But her story is still unfolding.
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Spencer was transplanted from the Midwest to Albuquerque, N.M. for work in the Air Force Communications Squadron after her high Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) score showed technical skill. She served during the Clinton administration, when the groundwork for a local area network was just being laid at the Albuquerque base.
While on active duty, she performed as a singer at base events as a member of the Air Force’s elite entertainment group “Tops In Blue.” She also competed in the local pageant circuit, later winning the title of Miss Albuquerque. That title led to an invitation to perform at a variety of events around the state – and signaled the start of a burgeoning entertainment career.
But after honorably discharging from the Air Force, Spencer was essentially starting her career from scratch.
Upon returning to Ohio, she would go on to spend the next 15 years working in the entertainment industry as a singer, songwriter, musician, choreographer, dance instructor, and sound engineer, while also earning membership in the Screen Actors Guild for her television songwriting work.
In 2012, Spencer’s mother suffered a massive stroke, forcing her to walk away from her career once again, in order to care for her mother. Needless to say, the experience left her drained and depressed.
“I was trying to rebuild my life,” said Spencer.
Eventually, Spencer was encouraged to apply for vocational rehabilitation benefits through the Veteran’s Affairs office.
At first, Spencer thought she wouldn’t qualify. She’d been out of the military for more than 20 years, and some benefits have a time limit. However, since a knee injury sustained in the service left her 20 percent disabled, she was in fact eligible for vocational rehabilitation.
Designed to allow veterans to start a whole new career, vocational rehabilitation benefits pay for tuition, supplies, housing and even offer a living stipend, which in many cases will allow students to focus completely on schoolwork without having to work a fulltime job.
After another community college told Spencer it didn’t grant priority registration to all veterans, Spencer decided to give the COC Veterans Resource Center a call.
The representative she spoke with at COC convinced her to come in for a tour of the campus and an overview of the many support services available to veterans.
“The day I visited campus I was like, ‘I’m home,’ ” she said.
When Renard Thomas, director of COC’s Veterans Resource Center, heard about the issues Spencer was running into at other community colleges he quickly assured her that things would be different at COC.
“[Renard] said, ‘In my eyes, a veteran is a veteran, and you will always receive veteran’s treatment at this school,’ ” Spencer recalled.
From there, COC Veterans Resource Center staff guided her through the process of applying for, and receiving, the benefits she had earned.
“The staff at COC was fantastic,” said Spencer, noting the help she received from Thomas and COC veterans counselor Sylvia Tran. “Renard makes sure that everyone working in that office is not just a body, but a body of knowledge.
“The Veterans Resource Center really is a safe haven for vets like me who needed help navigating the system,” she added.
Spencer enrolled at COC in the summer 2014, and has since racked up a 4.0 grade point average and become a member of the college’s Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society and Sigma Delta Mu Honor Society. She was accepted to UCLA, where she plans to transfer after graduation.
Most recently, she was awarded the college’s “Dare to Dream” scholarship, dedicated to COC re-entry students who demonstrate financial need.
“Robbi has an exceptional zeal for learning, and her solid work ethic and thirst for knowledge helped propel her to the top of her class,” said Thomas. “She is an outstanding model for her peers and especially veteran students.”
With her time at COC coming to a close, Spencer will now focus on a bachelor’s degree in psychology and eventual doctorate in social psychology at UCLA, after being steered toward that subject during a social psychology class at COC.
Already eagerly pursuing her dreams, Spencer’s career goal is to be a social psychology researcher, providing therapists with the data they need to help their patients.
“In eight years, I will come back to this campus and visit as Dr. Robbi Spencer,” she proclaimed.
When asked what she would say to other veteran students returning to school or starting a new career, Spencer likened her experience to that of Charlie finding the golden ticket in the popular story of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
“Do not waste the opportunity,” she said. “Think of it like you just opened that candy bar with the golden ticket in it. Education really is that golden ticket, and it can change your life if you’re tired of where you are.”