Already recognized as a leader in disability services for students, the University of Illinois has plans to tackle a new concern — helping the most severely injured war veterans who want to continue their education.
The Urbana-Champaign campus broke ground this month for the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, a place where military veterans with the most severe disabilities can live and get services they need, including counseling, academic coaching and rehabilitative help.
With plans to open in fall 2015, the center is expected to serve about 165 veterans each year, including 12 who will live on-site in fully accessible rooms equipped with the latest technology. The goal is for the U. of I. to become a destination for veterans across the country who are deciding where to pursue their degrees.
"We want to be a national resource for this most vulnerable of populations to be able to move on to another productive life," said Tanya Gallager, dean of the U. of I.'s College of Applied Health Sciences, which will oversee the center.
"Because of our unique experience and history at the University of Illinois, we feel that we are in the best position to do that," Gallager said. "If anyone can do it, it will be Illinois."
The U. of I. became a leader in this area in 1948 when it became the only campus to accommodate World War II veterans with disabilities. The campus was the first to have curb cuts, buses designed with wheelchairs lifts and an athletic program for students with disabilities.
In 2010, the university opened a dorm, Nugent Hall, where students with the most severe physical challenges — all use motorized wheelchairs or scooters — live on the first floor. The dorm's hallmark is its personal assistants, who live in the building to help students shower, use the bathroom and get to class. Students who live there have access to wireless pagers they can use to call for help 24 hours a day. It's considered the most user-friendly dorm in the country for students with severe physical disabilities.
The residence for wounded veterans will be modeled after Nugent Hall. Gallagher expects that it will serve military veterans who have lost one or more limbs, have traumatic brains injuries or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example.
Gallagher said recent military veterans are returning home with new types of injuries, including those that veterans of prior generations would not have survived. The university wants to help ensure that they can live as independently as possible, in productive careers.
"There have been so many advances in medical attention in combat areas and protective equipment that have really helped with survival," Gallagher said. "As a consequence, people are living with severe and multiple disabilities. This is a very vulnerable population that we are going to be prioritizing."
In addition to the residential area, the three-story center will include a student commons, a fitness center and research space. Programs will include academic advising, counseling, career services and rehabilitation support.
The center also will be equipped to help veterans' families, including a child playroom and family counseling.
The facility is expected to cost about $14 million to build, of which the university has raised about $11.5 million in public and private funds. The state contributed $4 million, and the Chez Family Foundation donated $6 million.
"Could there be anything more important than providing services to the people who have risked their lives?" said U. of I. alum Ron Chez, 73, whose foundation contributed the lead gift. "I can't think of anything that would rank higher than that."
Chez first learned about the idea for a veterans center years ago after reading a Tribune story about the new Nugent Hall. During a visit to the U. of I. to learn more about Nugent Hall, Gallagher told him about her plans for a similar venue for veterans. A longtime university donor, Chez decided he wanted to help with the new effort, and the center will be named for his family.
There are currently 411 student veterans at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said Nicholas Osborne, director of veteran student support services. They are typically older than other students and are more likely to be married and have children. About 25 percent of the student veterans have disabilities, Osborne said.
"We do have veterans with disabilities on the campus now, but not the severity that we want to particularly reach out to," Gallagher said. She said the U. of I. will likely recruit from the country's largest rehabilitation centers for wounded veterans.
U. of I. senior James Yoon, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he hopes the new center will help students get an education while also getting the rehabilitative services they need. Yoon, who was in the Army from 2004 to 2009, has been diagnosed with PTSD, he said.
"The center will be a great opportunity for soldiers to go to school while rehabbing," said Yoon, vice president of the Illini Student Veterans. "The transition is difficult going from a soldier to a student. In the military, you have a purpose and a goal every day. It is more structured."
There has been a surge in veterans attending college in recent years as they return from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, Congress approved expanded education benefits for military veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2011. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans with financial support for tuition and housing so they can continue their educations.
Illinois also passed a law this year that allows veterans from outside the state to pay in-state tuition at Illinois' public colleges and universities.
Although universities across the country are adding programs to help the veteran population, Osborne said none will be as advanced as Illinois'.
"There is nothing at the level we are going to be offering," Osborne said. "It is taking existing services to a whole other level and to a national scale."
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