Following tours in Iraq with the highly decorated 172nd Stryker Brigade and an academic career that included a fellowship in Prague, the 27-year-old Mat Jasieniecki graduated Sunday from the University of Illinois. He is the outgoing president of the Illini Veterans student group, whose membership has tripled and which raised $10,000 in its first-ever 5K race to help pay for the UI Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education.
CHAMPAIGN — Mat Jasieniecki readily admits that after he graduated from high school, he partied a bit too much, and after a while his grandparents told him to shape up.
Jasieniecki, who was born in Poland and raised primarily by his grandparents in the south suburbs of Chicago, was always a curious student — interested in history, chemistry, economics, astronomy and more — but with little financial resources, he didn't consider college as an option. At least not right away.
Instead he moved to Florida, and there his uncle, a Marine, presented him with several brochures for the various branches of the armed services. Jasieniecki chose the Army, and soon he was off to basic training.
Nine years later, following tours in Iraq with the highly decorated 172nd Stryker Brigade and an academic career that included a fellowship in Prague, the 27-year-old graduated Sunday with a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois.
Jasieniecki is among a growing number of veterans enrolled on the Urbana-Champaign campus. There are 404 student veterans, most of them undergraduates, and about 75 percent served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Nicholas Osborne, a veteran and assistant dean who advises the Illini Veterans student group. In the last 2 years, membership in the Illini Veterans has more than tripled. Jasieniecki, the outgoing president, has developed it into something much more than the social group it was originally established as.
"I wanted to solidify the (registered student organization's) presence in the student community and the Champaign-Urbana community," he said.
Over the winter, the group dedicated a veterans lounge in the basement of the Illini Union where veterans can take a break from studying and connect with other vets. They conducted a drive to collect furniture and household items for formerly homeless veterans who were moving into permanent housing. And earlier this spring, they organized the inaugural Illini Veterans Memorial 5K run/walk to raise money for the $12 million Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education. The building, under construction on Nevada Street in Urbana, will feature residential units for injured veterans who need personal assistance, a fitness center, lounge, tutorial and advising spaces, and more. It's being paid for with state and private money.
"He has a strong commitment to our veterans. Mat's leadership was striking with this RSO (registered student organization) in that he really changed it from being a social club to a philanthropic one heavily based on service," Osborne said.
Jasieniecki was born in a village northeast of Krakow called Proszowice. Three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he and his mom, a single mother, moved to Chicago where her parents were living. He grew up in Burbank and attended Reavis High School, graduating in 2004.
In the Army, he trained as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic and qualified to work on Stryker vehicles. In high school, he had tooled around on his friends' cars, and his grandfather worked in heating and air-conditioning. Jasieniecki took to the mechanic's job and worked his way up to becoming a team leader for mechanics with a combat engineering unit. Because of the timing of his deployment and the stop-loss policy, by the time he returned to the U.S., he had missed any chance at applying to schools for the coming fall. He had to wait several months, living in the suburbs before eventually enrolling at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He leaned toward concentrating on pre-medicine and psychology, but continued studying Russian and Polish and maintaining his interest in political science and history.
On a return visit to Poland, he was fascinated with what he saw — a former Communist country transitioning to capitalism. In his sophomore year, he transferred to the Urbana campus and started taking classes in Slavic languages.
"It was weird," he said of the reaction of his classmates when they learned he was an undergraduate. "College seemed like an extension of high school," because so many students go directly to college after graduating high school, he said.
Eventually he met a few fellow veterans and made his way to the Illini Veterans.
"We spot each other out. A lot of times it's the haircut," he said, of veterans' preference for short hairstyles. Veterans usually can identify each other by their defined muscles, wearing of old combat boots, or T-shirts with a unit's insignia, he said.
"I wish veterans would get more involved. Some don't want to be acknowledged," he said. Perhaps it's because, he believes, some students mistakenly think all veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders or are prone to angry outbursts. Some fellow students are intimidated by them, he said. Others walk right up to them and thank them for their service.
In his time as president of the Illini Veterans, Jasieniecki said he is most proud of how they pulled together the 5K, which ended up raising almost $10,000 for the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education.
"Creating an event like that will help make us seem like a vital part of the community," he said.
No one in their group had ever managed a race before, let alone started a new one. But they were amazed by how people and businesses in the community donated money and time for their event, he said. Last week they presented a check to the College of Applied Health Sciences.
The center will contain about 12 to 14 residential units for UI student veterans who have been severely wounded, according to Jean Driscoll, the assistant dean for advancement in the College of Applied Health Sciences who has been helping raise money for the building. A variety of services will be available there to all UI student veterans, including family counseling, health and life skills, therapy services, academic and career counseling, and more.
"I was so impressed. They've been so respectful and excited about the opportunity to support the veterans' center," Driscoll said. "I'm looking forward to being in touch with them for many years to come."
A groundbreaking ceremony has been scheduled for November, and construction may start in December. It's likely to be done by February 2015.
As for Jasieniecki, next week he will pack up and head southwest to Dallas — "I love the desert" — where he will begin a new position as a financial adviser at Edward Jones. He hopes to continue to use his language skills to assist Polish and Russian clients.