Veterans find educational home at Oakton
Brian Rorig of Glenview, a student at Oakton Community College in Skokie, is an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 9, 2012 6:27AM
After four years of service in the United States Army, Glenview resident Brian Rorig took time off before enrolling in college.
“I needed some time to stare at the wall,” said the 30-year-old Oakton Community College student-veteran who completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It can be weird walking around here sometimes,” he said.
The transition from patrolling Middle East deserts to navigating crowded school hallways can feel as tough as combat for some returned troops. Accessing earned benefits is puzzle of paperwork. Being in class with those who haven’t seen war can be isolating.
Oakton has made a concerted effort to welcome its soldiers-turned-students.
For that G.I. Jobs magazine recently recognized Oakton as a “military-friendly school,” an honor bestowed upon the top 15 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools that go above and beyond to embrace military service members, veterans and spouses as students.
The monthly magazine surveyed more than 12,000 higher education institutions nationwide to compile its rankings.
Under the direction of Veteran and Workforce Specialist Vince Donahue Jr., Oakton provides veterans and other military personnel with support in navigating the benefits available to them by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
Donahue, who served six years in the military during the 1970s, would like to see returning service members take advantage of the benefits whether or not they went to a war zone.
“Don’t think because you weren’t on the front lines you’re not a veteran,” he advised.
Donahue and two financial aid advisors work with veterans to cut through red tape.
Those with a Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, known as a DD214, may be eligible for education assistance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Illinois Veterans Grant.
Under the Hire Heroes Act of 2011, unemployed veterans older than 35 may apply for financial assistance for job training in high demand occupations through the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.
Funds for school gives returning service members, who are often juggling a job and family, one less thing to worry about, Donahue said.
Obtaining benefits is not always an easy process. Oakton student-veteran Edet Nsemo waited more than two months for his disbursement, which included stipends for books, housing and other living expenses.
Nsemo, 28, of Chicago’s North Side, recently completed more than four years with the Marines. He was stationed in Japan, spent time in Southeast Asia and did a 10-month rotation in Afghanistan, where he provided training to the country’s troops.
Nsemo started taking courses at Oakton in September during the final month of his active-duty service. A majority of his classes are at the college’s Skokie campus.
“It’s a great learning environment,” he said, adding the college’s staff has been “incredibly accommodating.”
Nsemo is studying political science in hopes of one day utilizing his military experience to influence policy-making.
“I can’t see anything on this side of the world that can’t be achieved,” he said.
Walking into a four-year university after his deployment wasn’t what Rorig wanted.
“For a person like me, it’s been a long time since high school,” he said.
Oakton has provided Rorig with a “refresher” in academics. “It’s a hidden gem,” he said of the college.
Rorig anticipates pursuing an advanced degree in social work or counseling, and obtaining a job with the VA or mentoring teens.
His current mission, however, is reviving Oakton’s veterans club.
“There are apparently 200 student veterans enrolled at Oakton and I don’t know any of them,” he said. “I want to meet these guys.”
He views the club as an opportunity for service members to share advice and support.
“It’s unhealthy to keep this all bottled up, which I know guys are doing,” Rorig said. “I don’t want these guys coming back and feeling they’re alone.”