Veterans returning to Chicago could get $1,000-a-year scholarships to attend City Colleges, academic credits for their military training and counseling to ease the transition, thanks to a mayoral plan tailor-made to drive down veterans unemployment rates that triple the national average.
The dramatic expansion of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Returning Veterans Initiative” could bridge the gap between veterans benefits and City Colleges tuition.
Starting next spring with $50,000 in seed money from the City Colleges of Chicago Foundation, the system will create a “Service to Success Fund” to dole out scholarships of up to $1,000-per-veteran for each academic year.
Vets pursuing an associate’s degree after an honorable discharge will receive seven credit hours in electives that recognize their military experience, expertise, training and certification. Additional credit based on military training transcripts will be applied where appropriate.
Every one of the seven City Colleges will also open a Veterans Resources Center staffed by a full-time veterans advocate to provide transition counseling, job placement, financial aid and benefits enrollment.
And the system will hire a dedicated recruiter to attract and assist returning veterans while automatically identifying vets who apply on their own so advocates can connect with them.
Meosha Thomas, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran who was the 2012 valedictorian at Kennedy-King College, said the scholarships, credits and counseling are desperately needed to ease the transition.
“We do get education benefits. But our education benefits don’t cover everything. I had to come out of pocket for books. That was very frustrating because I’m a single mom,” Thomas said.
“I had to sacrifice time trying to go to school and work an additional job to come up money. I missed out on time with my children doing that. We have to be away while we’re in the military. We don’t want to do that in the civilian world also.”
Thomas said her transition to civilian life was complicated by injuries that cut short her Navy service.
“I was medically retired due to my injuries. As soon as I came home, I was looking for a Plan B. There was nowhere I could go — no person I could talk to,” Thomas said.
“When we leave the military, we’re coming into a whole new world that’s often unfamiliar. We may have started as civilians, but you never go backwards. Coming back to the civilian world can be intimidating, scary and frustrating— especially when there’s no one to understand and advocate for you and no resources to ease the transition.”
Will Schmutz, the city’s director of veterans affairs, said the scholarships will be a “God-send” for returning vets.
“It’s easy to apply for the schooling benefits under the G.I. Bill, but sometimes those checks get delayed. Having $1,000 to fall back on when your checks come late is a big plus,” Schmutz said.
Many vets hesitate to apply to college because they don’t think they’re “school-ready,” he said.
“This program makes school much more inviting for them. It’ll make a lot more veterans willing to look at the opportunity because of the ease of it. They’re gonna look at these extra credits and think military service and what they learned was worth something,” Schmutz said.
Six months ago, Emanuel launched a “Returning Veterans Initiative,” citing statistics that show that: one in three of the nation’s homeless men are veterans, one in four are suffering from either depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and that the jobless rate for veterans is three times higher than the national average.
It called for opening a Veterans Employment Center at 4740 N. Sheridan and a Veterans Resource Center across the street from the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs to address the unique health challenges facing disabled vets.
City Hall also vowed to work with potential employers to help them understand the challenges facing returning vets trying to re-enter the work force and create a comprehensive online resource guide to help veterans wade through the bureaucratic maze of federal, state and local resources available to them.