by Catherine Guiles
Feb 21, 2008

Luke Stalcup had a harder time than usual when he applied to college.

For one thing, he was stationed in Baghdad with the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“It wasn’t like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” he said. “It’s like trying to use your bicycle to cook a meal.”

But now, Stalcup, 27, is scheduled to graduate from Columbia University and has lobbied in Washington on behalf of Student Veterans of America, which he co-founded.

Since its inaugural meeting in the Chicago area in January that drew veterans from about 25 schools, SVA has grown to 200 member chapters and attained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, Midwest regional director John Mikelson said.

The movement attracted Marine veteran Rodrigo Garcia, an alumnus of Northeastern Illinois University and MBA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I want to make sure that at a national level, veterans have the proper benefits to help them in the quest for an education,” said Garcia, 26, a former member of NEIU’s Veterans Club.

SVA can help groups network, as well as ensure that they are “treated like any other group” on campus, he said.

Garcia has reached out to other Chicago colleges to get SVA chapters started.

He and Stalcup support changing – or replacing — the current GI Bill to cover more of the cost of a veteran’s college education.

Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., introduced the “Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007.” It calls for covering tuition and other costs up to those at the most expensive public university in a state for 36 months, plus a $1,000 monthly stipend, for eligible students who have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

Pentagon officials have called the bill too expensive and fear it may discourage people from re-enlisting. But Stalcup said those arguments are flawed.

“It’s an inconsistent position for [the Defense Department],” he said. “You can’t say, ‘We want education benefits’ [as a recruiting tool] and then say, ‘We don’t want education benefits.’”

Stalcup spoke Feb. 13 at a Webb press conference in support of the bill.
SVA President Derek Blumke and Vice President Anthony Allman made a separate trip to Washington, where they briefed congressional staff members and other veterans organizations about education and health concerns.

Veterans in Illinois can take advantage of the Illinois Veteran Grant Program, which covers tuition and some fees at state schools for eligible residents. But Garcia said those elsewhere need the federal government’s help.

Many returning veterans attend community colleges and public universities, but Stalcup said they should have greater access to private institutions as well.

Besides cost, “it’s hard to get into these elite schools,” such as Princeton University, which does not accept transfer students, Stalcup said. “If you were awarded the Medal of Honor, there’s no place to put that on your Harvard application.”

A student veteran was among the victims of the Feb. 14 shootings at Northern Illinois University. Sgt. Julianna Gehant, 32, had served in the Army for 12 years and was a freshman at NIU.

“It was an unfortunate event. We lost one of our sisters,” Garcia said. “I know she was an active member of [NIU’s Veterans Club].”

NEIU’s Veterans Club sent condolence messages to NIU’s club, both for Gehant and for sophomore Ryanne Mace, the niece of a member of the NEIU group.

Garcia said he plans to attend the SVA’s second, bigger conference in June in Washington.

“The movement has sprung to life,” Stalcup said. “The more we do, the more we identify there’s things to do.”

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.