“In 2016, I realized my calling. I wanted to establish a veteran’s support group for women in the Lehigh Valley. I had all these skills from helping and teaching – public speaking, facilitating – but I didn’t have the business skills to start my own non-profit. So I went back to school,” recalled Jennifer Pacanowski, founder and director of Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving (WVE&T) and class of 2020 alumna of Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). “I had found my dream and my calling, I just needed to learn the skills to achieve my dream – and that’s why I started at community college.”
Ms. Pacanowski had tried higher education in the past. Immediately after graduating high school in Tobyhanna, Pa., she enrolled in a private college and struggled for the next five years, until she had $40,000 in student loans but no degree. She joined the army to seek relief from the burden of her student loan debt. She served as a combat medic, accompanying convoys of supplies during transport in Iraq.
“The military was a challenging and quick but defining part of my life. It was training, then war, then the reserves,” she said. “In 2007 I was diagnosed with severe PTSD. My transition back to civilian life was hard, but eventually I found a community of other people from the same background who were also struggling with their mental health. I just kept trying different things until something finally helped. I didn’t give up.”
Her second try at postsecondary education, Ms. Pacanowski said, was different. She said that at LCCC she found more support. “The community at LCCC was more supportive and helpful than I had ever experienced before,” she says.
Since graduating with an associate degree in 2020, she transferred to Moravian University and earned her bachelor’s degree. A resident of Bethlehem, Ms. Pacanowski is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Performance Creation while working full-time, raising two stepchildren and training bullmastiffs as a hobby.
“If someone had told me in high school that I didn’t need a $65,000-a-year college to get a quality education, my life might have been different,” reflected Ms. Pacanowski. “I think it’s critically important that Pennsylvania doesn’t price students – especially low-income individuals – out of higher education.”
The Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving (WVE&T) will hold Student Military Community Empowerment Workshops
every other Tuesday this fall. All our welcome. Information on LCCC’s veteran services is online
Article written by Carolyn Simpson as part of veterans outreach for the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.