Office of Veterans Affairs paves way for military students BY TORI FOSTER

Photo courtesy of The Herald News.

Lewis University dedicates a Veterans Plaza to honor all U.S. Veterans who served at anytime in defense of their nation.

Lewis’ Office of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment provides student veterans, current military personnel and members of military families with resources to show how to take full advantage of their military benefits and other academic benefits. University counselors ensure military students are earning maximum benefits, such as those provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs through the college’s Yellow Ribbon Program.


Lewis has maintained a long relationship with the military and, in doing so, has tailored many educational services to meet the needs of service members who chose to continue or begin their education.


Yet, these services don’t stop at financial aid assistance. The Office of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment on campus provides programs that aid student veterans in their transition to civilian life.


Program Director, Lt. Col. Roman Ortega described some of these programs, including the Lewis University Student Veterans of America chapter, which promotes a close community of student veteran fellowship. He also discussed the Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee faculty and students who address veterans’ issues at Lewis and the Veteran Peer-to-Peer Mentor Program.


“In the Veteran Peer-to-Peer Mentor Program, we assign student veterans who are excelling here at the university, typically juniors or seniors, and assign them to an undergraduate student,” said Ortega. “We train the mentor to identify situations the mentee may need to be guided through, whether it be everyday experiences, resources they can take advantage of that the university provides for them or just aiding them in their transition to Lewis University.”


Ortega argues that Lewis’ high standings in military and veteran-friendly polls is due in part to the quality of education at Lewis, according to certain metrics. These metrics include veteran retention rates, graduation rates, career attainment rates and  the number of available programs. “I think it’s the university as a whole. We’re innovative in our programming; we don’t just offer one program, we offer a range of programs,” said Ortega.


When it comes to innovative programing, the Office of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment boasts that qualified post-9/11 veterans can enroll in over 100 approved education programs with no tuition payments, including a variety of aviation degrees.


Some other programs that boost Lewis’ status as a top military-friendly school include the Bridges to Employment Program, which builds connections between veterans and employers and increases their chances of success in the workforce.


Outside of providing for military students, the staff at Lewis’ Office of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment have been leaders for endorsing assistance for veterans at four-year colleges in Illinois and beyond.


In his role as the president, CEO and originator of his nonprofit the Student Veterans of America group in Illinois, Ortega creates an impact for veterans attending schools and training programs throughout Illinois. His work with the nonprofit, as well as his role on the Illinois Veterans Advisory Committee, has enabled him to broaden veterans’ opportunities to receive grants, expand university programming, build veteran networks and advocate for veterans with legislatures at the state and federal levels.


When talking about his nonprofit work, Ortega discussed how it reflected his values alongside Lewis’ mission. “I believe it showcases the dedication Lewis University has to supporting veterans that they allow me to work simultaneously with this non-profit,” said Ortega. “We are here to serve; we come with open arms to support our military students and the Lewis community at large.”


He also expressed how providing for our veterans and concerning ourselves with their issues has an impact outside of our university. “It shows how much Lewis is committed to the ecosystem surrounding military education,” said Ortega. “If schools don’t unite and have a collaborative community between them, military students are going to fail.”


He referred to the Navy proverb, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” which presents the idea that improvements to the general network of veterans will impact all education opportunities provided to veterans at four-year universities throughout Illinois. If the Lewis Office of Veterans Affairs and Recruitment can encourage legislatures and other programs to tackle some of the issues veterans face in education, they can help military students succeed nationwide.


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