Area colleges catering to increasing number of student veterans

Jon Walters, 35, an Air Force reservist speaks with McHenry County College criminal justice instructor Harriet Johnson before class.
Jon Walters, 35, an Air Force reservist speaks with McHenry County College criminal justice instructor Harriet Johnson before class.

More and more newly minted veterans are facing the daunting challenge of going from fighting in combat zones to finding their place in civilian life, oftentimes without guidance.

Returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq who return to college to advance their career prospects must juggle school work, wade through federal and state benefits, and deal with the residual stress and trauma from fighting a war.

Area colleges from McHenry County College to the Crystal Lake branch of Columbia College – Missouri are tailoring more services to veterans.

At MCC, veterans pursuing associate degrees have found comfort in a student-led support network. Student Veterans of America at MCC provides assistance to about 260 student veterans and helps them the transition to civilian life.

“Their integration with the civilian world is really challenging for them,” said Don Curfman, faculty adviser of the group. “They need to be seeing somebody.”

Curfman, who served in the Navy during Vietnam, said he is seeing veterans come to MCC a mere six months after active duty. The quick transition from combat to college can be trying, he said.

That’s why a MCC student veteran formed the group in 2009 and it’s been adding members at a rate of 50 students a year.

The group meets every week to talk about issues. It offers to involve vets in communities as volunteers, refers them to veterans clinics, and sends them to Lynn McCade, the college’s financial aid veterans coordinator, to take full advantage of their G.I. benefits.

The financial aid office also assists veterans with job training in high-demand fields such as criminal justice, engineering and computer networks.

The college participates in a federal program to give unemployed veterans a year’s worth of training assistance.

Air Force Reservist Jon Walters, 35, said the veterans group was the most resourceful tool for him when he enrolled at MCC to pursue criminal justice after serving three tours in the Middle East.

He said it provided invaluable assistance, especially after he tried and failed to get help with veterans benefits from the state and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

“[The group] was definitely a weight off my shoulders,” Walters said. “I’m not young, and I’m surrounded by young kids. Just knowing that there were other veterans around made me comfortable. We had commonality.”

MCC’s attention to veterans has earned it an annual spot on G.I. Jobs magazine’s list of military-friendly schools.

Others include Elgin Community College and Columbia College – Missouri, which operates a branch in Crystal Lake.

Like MCC, Elgin has a veterans coordinator in the financial aid department, sponsors a student veterans group and offers referrals to community services.

Columbia College provides academic credit based on a student’s military experience and has a new program that trains staff and faculty on ways to help veterans transition to civilian life.

Staffers such as Erica Poremba, who works at Columbia’s Crystal Lake branch, consults with veterans enrolling in school and using their military benefits. Poremba said the branch serves about 30 area veterans.

“Not all academic advisers are versed in VA lingo or chapter benefits,” Poremba said. “Most veterans are going back to school because of those VA benefits, and they really are looking for someone to understand them.”

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