Jeremy Giacomino knows that for military veterans, the return to civilian life can sometimes be as daunting as the perils they braved serving their country.
A veteran of deployments to Iraq as a combat photographer with the U.S. Marine Corps, Giacomino is now military programs coordinator in Elmhurst’s Center for Professional Excellence, responsible for helping fellow veterans and active military personnel thrive as Elmhurst students.
As American overseas military commitments draw down and Pentagon budget cuts take effect, a surge of veterans is enrolling in colleges and universities. Giacomino said there are now about 40 veterans or current military personnel studying at Elmhurst.
“We believe that their military experience adds an element of diversity to the campus and brings a valuable perspective on the world,” he said. “As more veterans return to school, we’re proud to be one of their options. We’d love to see that population grow, and we want to do all we can to help them graduate.”
Veterans pursuing higher education face a unique set of challenges. Some are recovering from physical and psychological trauma. Others have difficulty adjusting to life without the sense of purpose and camaraderie they knew in the military. And almost all find it difficult to navigate the maze of Veterans Administration paperwork that stands in the way of accessing their educational and health benefits.
For some veterans, those difficulties can interfere with their educational progress. In the decade following the attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 1 million veterans and their families made use of their G.I. Bill benefits to pursue higher education. Just over half of those veterans completed their schooling, according to the Student Veterans of America. That rate is lower than the 59 percent of their non-veteran peers who earned college degrees in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but is better than the completion rate for other “non-traditional” students.
Part of Giacomino’s mission is to help veterans and those now serving to succeed academically at Elmhurst, and to help keep them on track to graduate.
“I’m here to be an advocate for them. I am the veterans’ voice,” he said. “I’ll listen to them and go to bat for them to make sure they get the most out of their benefits.”
Giacomino has first-hand experience with the challenge of returning to civilian life and completing an undergraduate education. After his five years in the Marines, from which he was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2009, he attended DePaul University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics earlier this year. While attending DePaul, he worked as a liaison between the university’s administrative divisions and outside veterans agencies to provide resources and support for student veterans there. His experience as a veteran helps him serve Elmhurst students and prospective students in his new job, which he started in October.
“I have been in their position. I used the same G.I. benefits they use, and I know how to navigate that,” he said. “They can visit me if they are having issues with their VA benefits, if they need help accessing college resources, or if they are looking for career guidance.”
Giacomino also wants to help veterans connect to campus and community life. He works to involve them in service activities and social events on and off campus as part of their transition to civilian life.
“I believe that aids in the transition process, because it’s difficult to adapt to this new stage in life if you aren’t interacting with other students outside the classroom,” he said.
Giacomino wants veterans and those serving in the military to know that their talents are valued at Elmhurst.
“People who have served have shown that they are capable of great things,” he said. “That shouldn’t be forgotten.”