COD helps veterans like Jeff Priest make a successful transition to civilian life. Photo by Terence Guider-Shaw/special to College of DuPage
At age 18, fresh out of high school, Jeff Priest joined the Marines. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. His father and both grandfathers had been military men, so serving his country was something he always wanted to do.
As to why he chose the Marines, Priest said: “Their recruiter talked to me first.”
After basic training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Priest did tours of duty in Iraq, where he worked the Iraq/Jordan border crossing, then at the U.S. base in Okinawa.
It was in Iraq that he experienced the tough stuff: two buddies killed, nine others injured, and always wary of roadside bombs.
After serving four years, Priest was, he says, “one of the lucky ones.” Some friends helped him land a job delivering medical and surgical supplies. That led to a warehouse job filling orders for similar products.
But he wanted something more. He wanted to continue serving others. He wanted to be a police officer. So he did some online research and learned about the hiring and testing process.
Wanting to work close to his Wheaton home, and learning of COD’s veteran-friendly programs, he signed on for classes and applied for a job.
Today, Jeff Priest is both a COD student and a COD police officer.
While he learned basic law enforcement through the police academy and field training, “I’m focusing my associate degree in EMT/paramedic training,” Priest said. “It’s not that I want to do that as a career, but I want to know more about how to assist in various situations.
“Police officers are often on the scene before the medics. I saw situations in Iraq where I could have been more helpful if I’d had more training. So I’m getting that training now.”
Priest said many of his fellow military veterans face challenges in returning to civilian life, the workforce and school. One of those changes involves structure.
Husband and wife Nick and Julia Parrott of Wheaton are veterans and COD students. Photo by Terence Guider-Shaw/special to College of DuPage
“In the military, your day is planned for you from the minute you wake up until you get off work at night,” said Priest. “But when you get out, you lose that structure. Some veterans feel lost when it comes to figuring out what to do and how to do it.”
Priest also said money and bureaucracy can be obstacles, too. “There are great programs for veterans,” said Priest, “but the government doesn’t make things easy.”
Helping veterans through fiscal, physical, emotional and other transition issues is where College of DuPage steps in—and why the school has been hailed by GI Jobs magazine, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) and others for its veteran-friendly programs.
“We applaud the exemplary efforts of College of DuPage on behalf of its student veterans,” said IDVA Director Erica Borggren at a recent ceremony. “Moving from the military back into civilian life and college can present many challenges for veterans, and COD’s leadership has demonstrated a lasting, tangible commitment to helping veterans overcome these challenges.”
Among the COD programs hailed by the IDVA:
- Academic offerings, including courses taught by veterans and incorporating military and veteran-specific topics. This includes a Veterans Counseling Certificate—a first for Illinois—that offers specialized training for individuals working with veterans;
- Dedicated faculty and staff who demonstrate their appreciation for the College’s veteran community through projects and initiatives, such as the annual U.S. Marine Corps “Toys for Tots” campaign on campus;
- Office of Veterans Services that provides a “one-stop shop” for veterans, military personnel and their families. Resources include a full-time coordinator for Veterans Services, a Veterans Lounge, and a veteran-student work-study program.
Shelly Mencacci, COD Veterans Services coordinator, said many of the school’s offerings have been developed in response to veterans themselves.
“They said they wanted a place to be together, so we developed a Veterans Lounge—a place with computers, a TV and other resources,” said Mencacci. “Most important, it’s a place where they can speak with each other, share experiences and coach each other.”
“They said they wanted help finding jobs,” said Mencacci, “so on July 26, we held our first-ever ‘Hire Our Heroes’ job fair.”
Mencacci said more than 70 companies with “all kinds of positions” signed up for the Glen Ellyn campus event.
“These are firms looking for veterans because of their integrity, their determination and other qualities,” said Mencacci.
But Dr. Janet Kamer—an Air Force veteran, clinical psychologist and professor in COD’s new veterans counseling certificate program—says veterans and those who would teach, hire and serve them must overcome occasional challenges and misconceptions.
Many veterans are older than traditional college students and have seen things (death, injuries, poverty, abuse of women and children, etc.) that give them a higher level of maturity. As a result, “many of the typical collegiate concerns seem irrelevant,” said Kamer.
Veterans have spent years steeped in military jargon filled with abbreviations, acronyms and terms most civilians don’t understand. In making the transition to civilian life, it helps to have someone who “speaks their language,” said Kamer.
Some employers, having seen stereotypes on TV and in movies, mistakenly believe that many veterans have mental health problems—post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. They also worry that veterans who’ve worked in a military organization won’t transition well. Kamer sees part of COD’s job as separating myth from reality and helping bridge the employer/employee gap.
Finally, Kamer sees a need for more professionals—social workers, counselors, faculty members—who understand what veterans and their families need and who are trained to help. That’s why COD recently launched its first-in-the-state Veterans Counseling Certificate Program, which trains those interested in serving the needs of military veterans.
“Our veterans are a tremendous resource for our nation and for employers seeking skilled workers. But some need good advice, counsel and other services to make the transition from active duty to the home front,” said Mencacci. “COD is working hard to serve all these needs well.”
Reaching Out to Vets
- Illinois has 782,700 veterans, according to the Sept. 2010 U.S. Census.
- Of that number, 47,720 live in DuPage County.
- Just over 1,000 current military or veteran students are enrolled at College of DuPage.
- We offer a dedicated space in the Student Services Center, including a Veterans Lounge, to provide personal assistance to veterans.
- COD helps veterans with counseling and advising, academic guidance, career placement, and benefits information and assistance.
- College of DuPage also assists veterans with a textbook scholarship, an on-campus chapter of the Student Veterans Association, and a veterans job fair.
- We are the first community college recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education by the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Veterans can contact the COD Office of Veterans Services for more information at (630) 942-3814, or visit us on the web at cod.edu/admission/veterans.