College of AHS to open Center for Wounded Veterans next fall

The Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education on Nevada St., currently under construction, is poised to open in the fall.

By Faraz Mirza

For Patricia Starks, a veteran deployed in Iraq from 2009 to 2010, it was hard to find common ground with other students when she first came to the University in 2011.

“The challenges that I faced as a student veteran were assimilating back into and not knowing too much about the student lifestyle,” said Starks, vice president of Illini Veterans. “Being older and being amongst students who are 18 years old was challenging.”

In hopes of better relating to veterans and helping them assimilate into universities, the College of AHS will open a Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education in Fall 2015. The center will focus on providing services to support injured veterans and their families through higher education as they pursue their academic degrees.

Though primarily funded by the Chez Family Foundation, the $14 million center also received an undisclosed amount of funding from the state and a number of private donors, said Kyle Kostelecky, director of the center.

Kostelecky said the center, which has been in the planning stages for several years, aims to support all those who have been “grievously injured”, while giving them the opportunity to go to school and realize the dream of a career they may have not thought possible.

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The construction was approved at a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 24, 2013. Starks said before the construction for the center began, the University took the first steps toward helping disabled student veterans by constructing a Student Veteran Lounge in the Illini Union basement, where disabled veterans can go to study, relax or talk.

Although the lounge currently remains separate from the center, Starks said it has the potential to be combined in the near future.

“The center falls under the Applied Health Science college, while the Student Veteran Lounge falls under the Veteran Student Support Services,” Starks said. “I think in the future what the student veterans would love to see is collaboration and a connection that encompasses it all.”

The University, which has been serving students with disabilities since 1948, has been ranked 37th on the Military Times’ 2015 list of “Best for Vets” colleges. Colleges are put on this list based on the accommodations and services they offer to military and veteran students, as well as an assessment of the students’ success rates.

Starks, a senior and social media strategist for the Center for Wounded Veterans, said that the idea of the center is to have veterans that are already on campus guide incoming disabled veterans and serve as mentors.

“I think the big thing is that it’s a way to connect the student veterans who don’t suffer from any major injuries versus those who are looking to receive a very expensive and severe rehab, to build a relationship among them and a support network,” Starks said.

Starks said the Illini Veterans have also raised money for the center over the past two years through fundraisers, including the Illini Veterans Memorial 5K held in April.

“We see it as a place that is a national resource,” Kostelecky said. “We hope to and expect to serve wounded and disabled veterans from all over the country.”

Kostelecky said this center will provide a “comprehensive, holistic” service to the veterans, not only assisting them in academics, but also helping them learn to adjust to the challenges presented by their disabilities.

He also said the third floor of the building will be able to house up to a dozen of wounded veterans that need care throughout the day, while the center continues to support 150 to 165 more students not in need of persistent care.

“There’s no other center in the country, at any University, that does anything like this,” Kostelecky said.

Faraz can be reached at [email protected].