May 25, 2012

Partnership will benefit student veterans, families

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale has partnered with the Marion VA Medical Center to become one of a select few universities in the country participating in a national pilot program created to help veterans successfully transition to college and beyond.

The Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  The goal is to assure veterans get adequate support and tools to help them succeed in college careers and provide them with information about and access to the numerous programs and resources available through the VA, according to Thomas J. Kadela, section chief for the Marion VA Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Specialty Clinic Programs.

SIU Carbondale is one of just 20 institutions selected for the program.  The program started last year on five campuses and due to its success, expanded to include SIU Carbondale and 14 other institutions of higher learning this year.

“We appreciate the opportunity to partner with the VA Medical Center to expand our services for veterans and their families,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said.  “They have sacrificed so much for all of us, and we are proud to help them achieve their educational and career goals.” 

John J. Benshoff, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, noted, “This will expand our opportunities to provide service to veterans and offers a terrific collaboration between the University and VA.  We think it will have a significant impact on the lives of veterans at SIU Carbondale.”

The VITAL program is a holistic effort designed to help veterans return to civilian life and successfully complete college so they can go on to productive careers after serving our country, Kadela said.  

There are several components to the program:  education, peer support and outreach, and faculty and staff education and involvement.  Veterans face unique challenges coming from the military culture and the program seeks to help them meet those challenges via existing and new programs, peer support, and involving University faculty and staff to facilitate a successful reintegration and education process, he said. 

“This is a really big win for veterans, for our University and for the community.  It is a huge testimony to SIU Carbondale and our commitment to veterans that we are one of a small group of quality universities participating in this cutting edge program,” said D. Shane Koch, associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs in COEHS.

SIU Carbondale is part of a VITAL team that includes the University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Utah/Salt Lake Community College/Weber State University and City College of San Francisco. 

The VITAL grant provides funding for two full-time VA positions that are located at the University.  A community-based clinical social worker or licensed professional mental health counselor will provide a variety of services to veterans individually and in conjunction with their families and in groups.  This includes counseling, crisis intervention, wellness recovery plans and referring veterans to other available services as needed.

The social worker/counselor serves a collaborative role too, leading training seminars and educating University faculty and staff about veterans, their reactions and adjustments and the services available to the veterans.  This staff person will consult with faculty, partner with other campus and government services for outreach and education activities, and develop outreach and social events.

The program will also employ a peer support specialist and this is a crucial part of VITAL, Kadela noted.  As the name implies, the individual hired for this role will be someone with military experience who will share their lives and experiences with the veterans, helping reduce stigma and providing valuable support. 

“We are looking for a veteran with a personal experience with mental health -- someone who has suffered from depression or PTSD or other common problems veterans face.  They can share their experiences with the veterans, connect with them on a personal level and help them realize there is help, hope and the ability to regain a fulfilling life,” Kadela said. 

The job postings will soon be online at and Kadela is hopeful they will get the positions filled and the program up and running as soon as possible.  He and Koch encourage SIU Carbondale alumni to apply, noting that graduates are already familiar with the University and the region. The University will provide office space and work collaboratively with these new VA employees to help student clients. 

Kadela said it is a “huge testament” to SIU Carbondale and the University’s commitment to veterans that it earned a spot the VITAL program.  The University’s participation in the program is the result of the hard work of Kadela and Peter Gitau, associate vice chancellor and dean of students, and it fits well with the University’s longstanding and award-winning tradition of helping veterans, Koch said.

The University already has a Veterans Resource Center, a unit of Student Life and Intercultural Relations.  Gitau said the VITAL staff will work directly with the coordinator for Veterans Services.  The center will host the VITAL program and Gitau will collaborate in overseeing the day-to-day operations.

For more information, contact Koch at 618/453-2415 (email or Kadela at 618/997-5311 (email