Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=218997
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U.S. Navy veteran and Truman College student William Limestall talks about his decision to return to school.


City Colleges of Chicago specialists guide veterans from the classroom to civilian careers

by Jennifer Kirby
March 13, 2013



Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

Limestall talks about the transition from the military to student life.


William Limestall knows a thing or two about nuclear reactors. It’s good knowledge to have, considering he wants to be a physics professor. But first, he has to get through English 102.

Limestall is a U.S. Navy veteran, retiring in August after 12 years of service. Now he is back in the classroom, enrolled at Truman College in Uptown, a branch of the City Colleges of Chicago.

“I’m down here at this point. I’ve got a long way to go until I get up to here,” Limestall said, lifting his hand from waist to eye line. He has to start somewhere though, and an associate’s degree in science is the first step toward a new career.

Limestall is one of nearly 3,000 veterans supported by the City Colleges of Chicago’s Veterans Services Centers since their launch in fall 2012. The Veterans Services Centers are a capstone of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Service to Success” initiative, which connects veterans with support services and education at City Colleges to facilitate the transition from military to civilian employment.

Sites, like Truman College, have coordinated veteran services prior to Service to Success, said Jeremy Gantz, media relations officer for City Colleges of Chicago.

But now there is a coordinated effort to help veterans adapt military skills for the civilian landscape. The colleges are focused on translating military experience to academic credits. Vets receive can receive up to seven elective credits for basic training, and more depending on the service specializations.

Limestall, in charge of chemistry and radiological controls for a reactor plan on the USS Abraham Lincoln, earned physics credits. He enrolled in Truman in January 2013 and will graduate by the end of the summer semester. One move closer to his goal in less than a year.

“I received a lot of help here and that really motivated me for wanting to stick around,” Limestall said. “I wasn’t just a number, you know, I wasn’t just a guy coming in.”

Designated veterans services specialists at each of the centers foster that sense of support, said Limestall. These specialists tailor resources for vets, assisting with everything from class schedules to benefits questions.

Tim Davis, the veterans services specialist at Truman College, said the centers address veterans’ specific needs. “At City College, there’re a lot of programs, a lot of potential benefits to be used. There’re a lot of veterans and just a lot of potential to get lost in the cracks.”

Davis is also an Army veteran, serving from 2005 to 2009, with one tour in Iraq. His own experience as veteran – and as a veteran who went back to school – makes it easier to help veterans face the transition to a college classroom.

A one-size-fits all approach doesn’t work, he said, and each veteran requires different services. It’s Davis’ job to figure what they are, whether it’s mental health counseling for a vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or working through complications with veteran benefits.

Navigating veteran benefits is one of the toughest obstacles vets face, said Davis, and the Veterans Services Centers are on the frontlines in fixing those issues.

“When veterans show up at school, like I did the same thing, typically what happens is you show up and you’re no longer supported by your parents, no longer supported by anybody,” he said.

“You’re used to getting a paycheck and if you don’t get your benefits sorted out, you’re literally not going to have any money, so you’re not going to pay rent, you’re not going to buy food. And that is an enormous stress to have for people coming right out.”

Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides up to 36 months of educational benefits for a variety of degrees. Private and public institutions accept this benefit, but City Colleges’ Veterans Services specialists provide an expertise that a regular guidance or admissions counselor can’t always.

Financial challenges can also persist. In response, the City Colleges established a Service to Success fund that will help bridge the gaps between veteran benefits and educational expenses. Gantz said the City Colleges started accepting applications this semester for the $1,000 grants.

But the City Colleges – and its veterans services specialists – assist any vet, regardless of their service date or educational benefits. Fermin Domingo, a City Colleges student, served in the Marine Corps from 1993 to 1998, and retired from the Illinois National Guard in 2003. Domingo, 40, studies computer information systems at Wilbur Wright through the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP.

A federal pilot program, VRAP gives unemployed veterans between 35 and 60 years old a stipend for up to 12 months so they can retrain for high-demand jobs in industries like technology and healthcare at vocational schools or community colleges.

Domingo said he also had questions navigating benefits. “There’s so much information and there’s no way to get all that information to each veteran,” he said.

But he found resources and step-by-step support at Wright’s Veterans Services Center. “It’s a great resource to have,” he said. “Especially for veterans, they’ve been out of the school loop for some years. For them to transition back to the military to civilian and civilian to student is a big jump.”

Davis said that transition process also draws people to the City Colleges of Chicago, and the Veterans Services Centers, Davis said.

Some veterans had poor grades before entering the army, and need to boost their GPAs. Others are not sure if they’re built for school, and this is a trial ground, where the pressure feels a little less, he said. Or maybe they have no college experience at all.

“It’s like an on-ramp, so to speak,” Davis said.

Limestall also said the transition wasn’t easy. The last time he was a student, he was a kid in a classroom. “The hardest part is walking through the door, it’s telling yourself you want to go back to school,” he said.

The centers unite veterans and establish a community among those with shared experiences, and some shared challenges.

“I liked hanging out here,” Limestall said.

Domingo said most of his classmates don’t know he’s served, but at the Veterans Services Center, he can find people to talk to – and use military jargon they’ll understand. “You meet a fellow vet and they understand what you’re talking about and that camaraderie is there,” he said.

“[It] is actually one of the strongest things we do, I think,” Davis said. “Just providing a place for people to get together.”