Veteran Support is Front and Center on Campus
The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) was one of the first higher education institutions to offer specialized programs and housing to accommodate wounded veterans returning from WWII. These efforts were largely credited to Timothy Nugent, a professor of rehabilitation education at the University of Illinois, who founded a first-of-its-kind program of higher education to increase opportunities for returning veterans and people with disabilities to earn degrees.
Most recently, the College of Applied Health Sciences opened the new Chez Center for Veterans in Higher Education. The goal for the center was to provide veterans a greater sense of dignity through transition assistance and independent living. It provides residences and services to ensure graduation and career success.
Service Men and Women Are Underserved at Most Campuses
Student veterans are an underserved segment of campus populations and have unique needs, whether disabled or not. From civilian to military to student and back to civilian, oftentimes with experiences and injuries that will impact the rest of their lives, this group is mired in multiple, significant life transitions.
Smooth transitions are safeguards against an adverse chain reaction. Veterans and people with disabilities who lack emotional and physical support are less likely to graduate, and even less likely to re-enroll if they drop out. As a result, many of them are unemployed or underemployed.
An article in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development noted that while veterans are attending college in higher numbers due to increased education benefits in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they lack the support services they need to graduate.
The project team, comprised of LCM Architects, the College of Applied Health Sciences, and the University’s planners set out to establish a center at UIUC that provides essential support services. It took the team more than three years to finalize a site, develop a program, and conceive a design for the new facility.
Representatives from UIUC visited other higher education institutions with programs for student veterans. At the time there were none exactly like the one they envisioned.
William Goodman, Associate Dean for Administration, College of Applied Health Sciences at UIUC says it was important that the center be built on a high-visibility campus location with direct access to classrooms, dining, and activities. The campus offered 11 different sites, including some remote or off campus spots.
“So often, veterans offices on campuses end up being located in places like a basement of a student union. We wanted it to be in the core of campus and ultimately, the site couldn’t have been better for meeting that goal.”
– William Goodman, UIUC
Universal Design, Universal Support
LCM is known for designing for a variety of different disabilities – vision, hearing, mental health, developmental, physical, etc. LCM Partner Jack Catlin, FAIA says that one of the firm’s missions is to create an environment that adapts to people, as opposed to people having to adapt to the environment.
“We think about design from the user’s perspective.”
– John H. Catlin, FAIA, LCM Architects
LCM based the concept for the new 32,000 sf center on the principles of universal design to establish an inclusive environment that is welcoming and usable by everyone. Project Manager Armando Tobias, AIA and Partner In Charge Richard Lehner, AIA, LEED AP explain the design sought to not just meet baseline accessibility requirements, but to exceed them and then seamlessly disappear into the background.
“We wanted to create a home, not an institution, for the returning veterans.”
– Armando Tobias, AIA, LCM Architects
“The idea is that everyone uses the building in the same way. There isn’t a separate entrance for someone with a disability and someone who does not have a disability.”
– Richard Lehner, AIA, LEED AP, LCM Architects
The group kitchen features base cabinets and appliances with drawers rather than doors, low work surfaces, adjustable height tables, and a sink with front approach and knee clearance. It is a social gathering area that doubles as a teaching tool.
The residences are located on the top floor for privacy and serviced by two universally designed elevators. The rooms and bathrooms were designed for maneuverability, flexibility, and accessibility. Shades operate by remote controls and doors have automatic opening censors. Even the soft and indirect lighting was chosen for people with vision and comfort issues.
The Chez Center for Veterans in Higher Education embraces a holistic approach to meeting the needs of veterans through the physical environment and special programming. Fourteen residences are combined with 24-hour support. Support services include health and life skills management training, peer mentorship, academic tutoring, psychological and career counseling, rehabilitative and employment services, and social events.
Students with and without disabilities embrace the center and use its services in increasing numbers. Approximately 140 student veterans engage with the center per semester, whereas only 30 students came forward seeking assistance when it first opened in 2015.
Goodman is thrilled with the strength and success of the program at UIUC and proud that it serves as a benchmark to other higher education institutions planning similar facilities.
“ … I want to believe we had a role in changing the trend by other universities observing what we’ve been doing here.”
– William Goodman, UIUC