As we take time to enjoy Memorial Day this year among friends and family and to celebrate what has come to be the unofficial start of summer, I also urge all of us to take some time to consider the intent and purpose of this holiday: to remember those in our community who have died serving in the nation’s Armed Forces. And more broadly, it is a day to remind us that the world conflicts of recent years has brought a new generation of student, staff and faculty veterans to the campus. For many here at Illinois, this is an unknown and unfamiliar experience. But recognizing our members of the armed forces who have fallen and supporting those who have served and returned is a strong and honored tradition for the campus – one that really began with Memorial Stadium. And as sad a tradition as it may be, it is one that we recognize as an important priority today.
In 1944, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act – known informally as the G.I. Bill – promised U.S. veteran’s a wide variety of benefits including low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans and one year of unemployment compensation. But perhaps the most innovative benefit the G.I. Bill promised was a free college education.
When World War II ended in 1945, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were left wounded and, in many cases, disabled. These veterans had a desire to attend college and had been promised a financial means, but colleges were not equipped to serve disabilities.
As one of the original 37 Land-Grant institutions, we at Illinois have always been proud to provide access to education regardless of race, socioeconomic background or disability. In the 1940s, that meant rising to the challenge to make it possible for wounded veterans to have a university education. Professor Timothy Nugent believed this to be a fundamental responsibility for the nation and for the University of Illinois – and he was unrelenting in his efforts to make all of us live up to that responsibility.
In 1948, our Division of Disability Resources and Education Services (DRES) became the first post-secondary support service program in the world. And while Professor Nugent’s legacy was born from the needs of wounded veterans, it has touched the lives of nearly every individual with physical disabilities since then. I think that is an important lesson. While we may create programs to serve our student veterans, the ideas and innovations that come from these make lives better for all of us.
Our commitment to supporting veterans is not merely a good story from the past; we are taking steps to ensure we can serve them in the future. We currently have just about 400 student-veterans on this campus, with more than 80% of them having served in the most-recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are a part of the diversity of experience and perspective that we as a campus realize makes this a true community we are committed to developing services to ensure that they have full access to the Illinois educational experience.
In 2011, within Student Affairs, we established a dean for veteran’s programs to coordinate services at a campus level. This office is a starting point for information and services available to our campus veterans.
This past January, we opened the Student Veteran’s Lounge in the Illini Union. Dedicated to veterans, but open to all our students, this lounge is the largest of its kind among our Big Ten peers.
This fall, we will break ground on the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education. This facility will be both a service center for our own injured veterans as well as a research and teaching center that will develop and disseminate techniques services throughout the world.
These are just a few of the services we have developed to meet the needs of a new generation of students who have served in the military. Given our land grant heritage and our own history, we should be leaders in this area, and, indeed, we are. In fact, for the past two years, Illinois has been recognized the Military Friendly Schools program as being among the top 15% of schools in the nation in delivering the best experiences to military students.
We are truly an inclusive and comprehensive university. And our services to this particular group of students is just another example of why we have an international reputation for being both a great place to learn as well as a great place to live.
As we celebrate this Memorial Day week, I wish you all a great start to your summer.
Around the campus
Congratulations to the students in the Education Justice Project who have received the Arcus Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. The students’ project, Language Partners, was one of three entries honored last week from among 188 submitted by organizations in 23 nations. The $30,000 award will be split with two other social justice organizations.
Congratulations to Mioy Huynh who was one of three people voted America’s Top TA by CengageBrain. This spring, college students from around the country were able to nominate and vote for America's Top TA with a combined total of over 750 votes.