Vets find welcome environment at Catholic colleges

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vets find welcome environment at Catholic colleges

Rachel Williams, Alex Robles, Gustavo Santillan and Brett Mango with his dog Taz, veteran students at St. Xavier University, work in the Student Veteran Resource Center located on campus on Feb. 9. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Students and veterans Stephanie Stavrenos and Mathew Dumais vist in the Resource Center on Feb. 9. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Peter Traxlar, a senior at Saint Xavier University, works on a computer in the Resource Center. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

U.S. military veterans have given up years of their lives to serve their country, developed discipline and skills that many young people can only imagine and often found direction for their lives that would not have happened without their military experience.

After all that, sitting in a classroom filled with 18-year-olds whose last significant life event was senior prom can be a bit daunting.

“When you first come out, you’re not sure where you fit in society,” said Rachel Williams, a 32- year-old Navy veteran and religious studies major at St. Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd St. “You’re no longer active duty, but you don’t feel like a civilian. You’re coming from a very regimented environment into a university, which is anything but. Sometimes you want to say, ‘I don’t understand why you can’t just do what you’re told. I don’t understand why you just can’t get the job done.’”

Williams was medically discharged from the Navy in 2012 after a bad reaction to a vaccine left her with Type I diabetes and lupus. She had enlisted in 2009, leaving a job as a flight attendant when airlines were thinning their ranks during the economic downturn, and found military life a good fit. She had hoped it would be a career.

She enrolled at St. Xavier, her brother’s alma mater, because she had heard that it was vet-friendly.

Now she is one of about 120 veterans or veterans’ dependents studying at St. Xavier, and she takes advantage of the Student Veteran Resource Center, where student veterans can meet with academic advisors. They also socialize, offer one another moral support and get help with everything from Veteran’s Administration paperwork to scheduling appointments with people in other university departments.

“It’s kind of like a USO for veterans,” said Sheri Gross, veterans’ coordinator at St. Xavier.

Like other Chicago-area Catholic universities, St. Xavier participates in the Yellow Ribbon program, which means that the university and the VA split the cost of any tuition above the maximum public university cost in Illinois. Its vet-friendly culture also works in more informal ways, Williams said.

“I’ve never had a professor dock me because I had to miss something to go to a VA appointment or anything like that,” she said.

Dominican University in River Forest, where there are about two dozen veterans using VA benefits, never charges the veterans a fee for late payments, said Mike Morsovillo, director of transfer admissions, because the payments are coming through the VA and the students can’t control when the money will be disbursed.

“We know they’re good for it,” Morsovillo said.

Anita Lumpkin, coordinator of military student services at Loyola University Chicago, said she spends much of her time helping the 150 student veterans and 50 dependents of veterans enrolled there work with the VA to get their benefits.

Lumpkin, an Army veteran, works with veterans as they apply, are admitted and enter the university, including those who are not quite veterans yet.

“A lot of the time, we have prospective veterans contact us in the last year of service,” she said.

She can offer resources and advice for moving to Chicago and many of the same informal services that St. Xavier offers its veteran students, including help dealing with the culture shock of going from a military base to a college campus.

“Our traditional students are transitioning from high school,” Lumpkin said. “There’s a step-bystep process, almost. That’s not the case when you are transitioning from the military. That is a hard and fast transition.”

The military vets who come to Loyola are older than the traditional students — their average age is 28 — and they might have spouses and children and jobs.

“They are wondering how they are going to survive and feed their families,” Lumpkin said.

When they hear the other students complain about having to get up for 8 a.m. classes, it’s hard for them to relate.

“When you’re in the military, you have people telling you what to do, where to go, how to dress, what to think,” she said.

Popular majors include the hard sciences — biology, chemistry, physics — pre-med, criminal justice. Law school is popular among graduate students, Lumpkin said.

DePaul University, the largest Catholic University in the United States, has about 500 veterans enrolled in various programs, said James Stewart, assistant director of adult, veteran and commuter student services.

Rather than try to provide a onestop shop for veterans, the university’s veteran liaison program aims to be a resource to direct student veterans to the appropriate university office or department when they need assistance. That seems to work best in a university with several campuses, and it serves to better integrate the veterans into the rest of the student population, Stewart said.

“We don’t want this to be an isolating thing for the veterans,” said Tina Korcz, an Army veteran and student worker in the office. She applied to DePaul through its website when she was still deployed; the only notice the university had about her military status was a check box saying she intended to use her veteran’s educational benefits.

Some veterans never use the veteran’s liaison, and that’s fine, she said, although the office does like to check in with them a few times a year.

“They can be as involved as they want to be,” she said.

DePaul tends to draw a slightly older population than many universities, with 25 percent “adult” students, so veterans who arrive on campus find that their age is not unusual, Stewart said. Their life experiences, like the life experiences of other students, enrich the university, he said.

All adult admission students attend the same orientation sessions, and at those sessions, anyone who is a veteran is offered the opportunity to contact the veterans’ office.

Stewart said it’s important that the university not stigmatize veterans or make other students see them as in need of more help than others. Rather, he said, they are an asset to the campus.

St. Xavier’s Gross agreed.

“They are not here because it’s the next stop after high school,” she said. “They’re here because they want to be here. Most of my students are really good at leading a group. They know what they want to do. They bring honor, they bring loyalty, they bring integrity. The university is richer for them.”


  • depaul university
  • dominican university
  • loyola univeristy chicago
  • st. xavier university
  • student veteran resource center
  • yellow ribbon program

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