My experience tutoring Veterans at PCC

This article was written by Rodinde Hendrickx, she can be reached at

Hello again! In a previous blog post I, Rodinde, shared my experiences on getting involved with outreach through Caltech in the Pasadena community. But there is more to outreach life in the US: Through the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) I got in touch with Urte Barker, which opened up a whole new category of outreach opportunities:  Tutoring Veterans, who are transitioning into civilian life at Pasadena City College (PCC) after years of service in the US Military.

Urte created the volunteer tutoring network for Veterans at PCC, which has been supported by the Caltech Y and CTLO since 2012: After she retired from a career as a chemical engineer in the oil & gas industry, she wanted to find a way to empower Veterans returning to school by assisting in their academic challenges. She started off with a focus on mathematics and sciences, but soon expanded to the humanities as well. She is currently looking for tutors in coding as a new area of expertise! As a “match-maker” Urte teams up Veterans and tutors, giving them the responsibility and freedom to schedule sessions at their own time/place. 

After the CLTO connected us, Urte and I met at a local coffee shop and hit it off right away; both of us had spent some childhood years in northern Germany, near the city of Bremen. Although Urte spent most of her life in the US, we chit-chatted in German and share our experiences in this city we both had called home once. Over an iced coffee, Urte explained her mission and guidelines for both the tutors and the Veterans. In her experience, she said, giving Veterans encouragement and study skills is perhaps the most important thing one can offer in addition to subject expertise. I explained what my academic background (Life Sciences) entailed and what I could see myself tutoring: initially opting for Chemistry, Math 101 and Microbiology. 

Not long after our first meeting Urte introduced me to my first Veteran students. Two men who just returned from having served overseas and eager to get into a new way of life and learning. One wanted to go into engineering, the other wanted to make movies. I met up with them at the math center at PCC where they booked a study room allowing us to talk and go over their assignments. To be honest, I was initially unsure about whether I could actually help them with their calculus… But with Urte’s words in mind, giving them a guideline as to how to study and approach learning, I went to the first session. 

Both of the student Veterans were well prepared and had questions for me: a good yet intimidating start. It was their first calculus course. As soon as they opened their book I calmed down. Calculating the surface of a given plot of farm land, calculating the amount of wires required for the optimal surface etc I too was having fun! They could follow my approaches on the whiteboard and I felt comfortable with the formulas. Before I knew it, time was up. 

I met with these students weekly over the course of their semester and could not help but feel proud when they both completed the course successfully. They weren’t always well-prepared, and I sometimes needed to remind them of the greater goal, the reason to do the assignments, the reason to try again if it didn’t work out the first time and to ask for help when their study partners were not around.

Later I started tutoring chemistry, first at the library in PCC, but since it is not always allowed to talk there we moved sessions to local coffee places (which works for me, I love good coffee!). I felt more comfortable with chemistry and told Urte that I would like to focus on this subject more, something she kept in mind when proposing future student Veterans to me.

Over the last 2.5 years I have assisted seven Veterans, each one for the duration of one course. We meet up once or twice a week for 1-2 hours. Initially at PCC, then I moved over to the local caffeine places and later, after starting my job, at Caltech.

In full disclosure: It was not always easy. Some students require more caring for than others. I had students that repeatedly did not show up for meetings. But it taught me the power of sending out reminders. I also had students that had trouble remembering, requiring me to repeat and repeat and repeat. I had times when I thought I exhausted all ways to explain a scientific concept, but still had not gotten the “aha” moment of the student: times when I felt useless as a tutor and wished I could have prepared better.

But for each of these moments, I had so many more happy ones. Seeing the slightest grin on faces when they understood and/or correctly answered a problem. Getting even the most timid person excited about some discovery they made/read about relating to their field of interest. Getting a message that they passed a test or an exam with a score above their own expectations and best of all, hearing from them that they got into their first-choice college.

Meeting Urte led to more than ‘just’ this rewarding tutoring experience. From a hidden gem on the beach to the best bread in town and the “hottest” place for art, she’s got you covered. On her suggestion we went to see the desert bloom in 2017, found our way to the Sequoia forest and explored the Getty, long before we would have even thought about getting out and about (moving is a tiring affair, right?). 

If you feel you could empower student Veterans at PCC by sharing know-how on how to study, how to memorize, or how to feel confident about your knowledge, PLEASE contact Urte! Thank you!

Those interested in volunteering with the PCC Veteran tutoring program can reach out to Urte Barker (urtebarker at gmail dot com). Also feel free to reach out to me for questions & experiences in science outreach in Pasadena and at Caltech! 

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