By Laura Janota | From the Spring 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
For 15 years, Chicago-area employment and training counselor Racine Walls encouraged thousands of veterans to prepare for college at the Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program headquartered at Roosevelt University.
Now, as this unique, life-changing program celebrates its 15th anniversary, the U.S. Air Force veteran who lost her counseling job with the now-defunct Veterans Leadership Program finds herself taking her own best advice.
“It’s funny. For all those years, I referred veterans to Veterans Upward Bound. Now, I’m a student in the program myself,” said Walls, who has been brushing up at VUB on computer, writing and math skills so she can be ready and successful this spring in network technology classes at a four-year university.
A nationwide, free-of-charge program funded by the U.S. Department of Education, VUB got its start in 1972 assisting Vietnam War veterans in need of assistance in transitioning to the college classroom and in making good use of their GI Bill funds. Since its beginning, VUB has evolved into a comprehensive pre-college program for all veterans.
Serving approximately 5,800 veterans nationwide annually, VUB currently has 48 locations throughout the continental United States and Puerto Rico. Established in late 1995, the program at Roosevelt University is the only one of its kind in Illinois, helping nearly 2,000 veterans over the past 15 years to re-establish their lives and a career path after serving in the military (see following stories).
“A lot of times these veterans come home and find that people don’t acknowledge their level of expertise, their organizational skills or their professional skills,” said Chris Chalko, director of VUB at Roosevelt University.
Veterans who complete the VUB program often go to Roosevelt or another university to earn their bachelor’s degree. An information management specialist with the U.S. Air Force from 1985-91, Walls is one example.
During her military service, she had many excellent assignments, including a stint with a unit involved with engineering of the F-16 fighter. She took classes while she was in the unit, and was a B student. After leaving the military, however, she failed her first two classes at a four-year university and dropped out all together in favor of her recent counseling job. Since then, she has earned an associate’s degree in computer information systems at Harold Washington College, and plans to continue her education this spring.
“Many people think that veterans have it made because their benefits are paid for,” said Walls. “I was left to navigate things on my own, and when I failed that first time in college I just gave up.” Many veterans typically have difficulty readjusting to life when they leave the military and/or return home from war. In fact, on any given night approximately 107,000 of the nation’s veterans don’t have a place to sleep, and it is estimated that one in five of the nation’s homeless are military veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Often times they come back home and find jobs that aren’t as meaningful as those they had while in the military. They find that they’re not expected to do well and that they’re not paid well. Then they struggle, many of them for many years, before they find our program,” said Chalko.
Since its inception, the pre-college program that provides training in basic language arts, math, computers and Spanish has served veterans from every branch of the military service, including the U.S Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines, and all wars from the Vietnam War to the present.
Some veterans have gone on to get college diplomas, from associate degrees to PhDs. Others have trained for better jobs and have started businesses. Many are engaged in projects and initiatives aimed at helping others and giving back to communities.
“The idea behind Veterans Upward Bound is consistent with the University’s mission of social justice,” said Greg Hauser, associate professor of educational leadership who applied for the initial federal grant that enabled the VUB program to open its doors at Roosevelt. “It provides the support and encouragement our service people need to get an education and get on with their lives,” he said.
Hired as VUB’s first employee, Chalko remembers having a single chair to sit in and using his briefcase for a desk in the former Herman Crown Center. Today, the program is located in Roosevelt’s Gage Building where Chalko has two teaching associates, Counseling and Careers Coordinator Dinu Skariah and Academic Coordinator Michelle Smith.
“Our job is to help our veterans take a step up in society,” remarked Chalko. Indeed, many veterans have changed their lives for the better with help from VUB at Roosevelt University. Here are just a few of their stories.
Norris Teague never thought he’d be able to write a 25-page paper. A high school dropout, Teague entered the U.S. Army in 1976 and served 17 years as a military on-commissioned officer.
“When I came into the VUB program in 2006, one of my problems was reading comprehension,” said Teague. “The instructors in the program gave me pointers on what I needed to do to focus on my reading, and because of that, I’ve been successful in college,” he said.
Teague majored in psychology and sociology at Roosevelt University, graduating in 2008. “They say real men don’t cry, but I dispute that. The day of my graduation, I cried in my own privacy,” said Teague, who does patient advocacy work for the U.S. Veterans Administration and also is studying for his master’s degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He hopes to one day work with veterans who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In order to reach his goal, he’s regularly writing 25-page papers these days on social work issues. “I never would have believed I could do it,” said Teague. “I’m truly a better person today because of the program.”
Guillermo Guzman, who did two combat tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq, had a lot of adapting to do when he returned home to Addison, Ill., in 2009.
Injured by shrapnel that struck his face and left side in a roadside bombing in Iraq, Guzman had to deal with the loss he felt for a friend who died in the explosion. He had to come to terms with the fact that his life at home would go on in spite of all that had happened to him. And he knew he had to have a plan.
“I was looking up the benefits I was entitled to on the computer and I came across Veterans Upward Bound,” said Guzman, who started with the program in October 2009. “At first I was just catching up with reading and writing, but then I began to realize that I needed a college degree.”
Guzman chose Roosevelt University because it offered a criminal justice degree and because he wanted to stay connected with fellow veterans in VUB. Currently a freshman, Guzman hopes to one day enter law enforcement. He already understands that a college degree could help him rise up the ranks.
“Guillermo Guzman didn’t waste any time finding out what his benefits were and recognizing that he’d need a college degree to get ahead. We’re glad that we can be here to help him reach that goal,” said Chalko.
Bonnie Neats couldn’t cut it when he returned home from Vietnam in 1975. An aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Air Force, Neats became a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade, but lost the job and his benefits. His mother became ill and died. The carefree life he’d known before going into the military just didn’t exist anymore, and Neats bounced around for years without a clear direction.
“I came back to a totally different world, and I just couldn’t handle it,” said Neats, who took up drugs and alcohol, landing in a number of treatment and rehabilitation programs before he kicked those habits, entered VUB and decided to go to college.
At VUB, Neats got support from both staff members and fellow veterans. “I remember when he (Neats) was saying he needed to get back to school, but he was having a problem with math,” recalls U.S. Army Reserves veteran Alvyn Walker, who is also a student in the program and a tutor to fellow veterans.
“I told him, ‘If you need anything, you feel free to see me,’” said Walker.
That kind of encouragement has helped Neats gain confidence about himself and his future. “I’ve always wanted to go to college, and I’ve learned that no matter how long it takes and what happens, I can achieve that goal,” said Neats, who is now taking general education courses at Harold Washington College. He also tutors homeless children who live in shelters.
Veteran Linda Hardison, who served 10 years with the U.S. Navy and Navy reserves, had long been in denial about computers.
“I didn’t want to learn them. To me, they were like this thing from outer space,” said Hardison, who entered VUB at Roosevelt University in 2008 with only the most remedial in computer skills.
Since then, she’s mastered Microsoft Word, Power- Point, Photoshop, and has been navigating online sites like Facebook, Twitter and some favorite blogs. She also recently received her associate’s degree in fashion merchandising from the Illinois Institute of Art – and is now determined to start her own business.
“I want to say ‘Congratulations to Veterans Upward Bound on 15 years,’” said Hardison, who has a vision and goal of starting a company that receives government backing to rehabilitate a building or block of buildings in the city of Chicago for affordable housing and youth and adult vocational training.
Hardison, who receives disability compensation from the U.S. Navy, recently was qualified by the not-for-profit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America to purchase her first four-unit building, possibly in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, where she hopes to provide housing and care for homeless and disabled veterans.
“I may not have the money, but I do have the passion to help others,” said Hardison, who is forming her own company, Rebirth Inc., which would rehabilitate buildings in Chicago neighborhoods for military veterans and others in need of housing, mentoring, vocational training and support services.
“I can’t stress enough how much the folks at Veterans Upward Bound have helped me,” added Hardison, who is learning about entrepreneurship at Jewish Vocational Services and is preparing to take courses in project/construction management at a four-year university. “They‘ve listened to me, they’ve directed me to resources and they’ve pushed me. Because of VUB, I’ve got a vision and I’m going for it,” she said.
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