Veterans to get gathering space at Illini Union

Veterans to get gathering space at Illini Union

URBANA When James Kubisiak arrived on campus in August 2008 he had been out of the military for all of one month.

The 26-year-old veteran, who served two tours in Iraq, found the transition from Marine Corps to University of Illinois tough.

"It's a totally different world and I didn't go out much," he said. It was hard to relate to the other freshmen, who mostly were 18- and 19-year-olds who recently graduated from high school.

Eventually he found his niche by working at the radio station and connecting with veterans through bowling, flag football games and time at coffee shops and campus bars.

"Without the vets group, I would have been lost," he said.

For well over a year, the Illini Veterans student group and other local veterans have been urging the university to establish a place for veterans to connect on campus. Recently the Dean of Students office and the Illini Union have agreed to share the expense of remodeling a space for the vets in the lower level of the union.

By next fall veterans will have a lounge of their own.

"With vets being nontraditional students, they really rely on that peer-to-peer support. This (room) will be a great way to mobilize that support network," said Nick Osborne, assistant dean of students and director of veterans services at the UI.

There are 381 students who are veterans on campus, plus 50 dependents. Of the 381 veterans, 270, or 71 percent, are undergraduates. Eighty percent of veterans are men and 20 percent are women.

UI student and veteran Chad Garland, a past president of the Illini Veterans who has been working on obtaining a space for over a year, said the organization emails members and maintains a Facebook page.

"We feel that having the center will also be a way for new people — people who don't get our emails or are on Facebook — to just walk in, find information posted on us, meet other vets, learn about other organizations," he said.

Garland envisions a place with display cases showing unit patches, photos and other items that represent military service over the years that can show the history and tradition of military service at the university.

There could be wireless Internet available, couches, bulletin boards that could display job notices, messages from the Veterans Administration about benefits or changes to benefits.

The space earmarked for the veterans is on the lower level of the union just off the Courtyard, said union's director, Ed Slazinik. Once used for meetings, it now is used for storage.

Osborne said the total cost estimated to renovate the space, which can accommodate about 30 to 40 people, at about $43,000, with student affairs and the Illini Union sharing the cost.

"It's a great thing for enhancing the visibility of student veterans on campus and contributing to the mission of diversity that we want to establish here," Osborne said.

Ray Elliott, a local veteran who has been advocating for the space, said the student veterans will meet for social hours in bars or coffee shops, "but they need a neutral place to go between classes."

A space in the union also can be welcoming to alumni when they visit campus, he said.

As for Kubisiak, who graduates this spring with a degree in psychology, he wants to work with veterans returning from overseas and help them transition to civilian life.

He said it was a great idea, this place where "any day of the week you can go and find a vet you can talk to and hang out with."

Looking back on the first year he spent on campus, a veterans lounge could have helped him with that transition because "nothing compares to this bond (between veterans)," he said.

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Reykjavik wrote on February 25, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Few would argue with the idea of a place for veterans since they are so deserving, yet theiir prior experience differs from that of our traditional students. One hopes that the Illini Union can help these student-veterans emerge as strong citizen-veterans.

Grand universities exist for eager students to assimilate high level scholarship. I never get the feeling that staff in the Illini Union buys into such lofty goals. They seem more into television and burgers and commercial Illini cruft.  Hopefully I am wrong.