Illini marching band at opening of the Wounded Veterans Center


A History of Serving Veterans

two men in wheelchairs exiting a bus in the 1950s

We are a University with a proud military history. Chartered as the Illinois Industrial University, the University opened in 1868. Renamed the University of Illinois in 1885, it is one of the original 37 public land-grant institutions created after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862.

In 1944, a bill was passed that provided a variety of financial benefits to returning veterans of World War II. The G.I. Bill, as it was known, included cash payments of tuition and living expenses that would allow veterans to attend college. At the time, conventional wisdom held that people with disabilities could not lead normal lives or be gainfully employed. What would be the point, therefore, of sending them to college?

Dr. Timothy Nugent did not accept conventional thinking. He believed people who used wheelchairs could succeed academically if physical barriers that prevented them from accessing campus buildings were removed. As a result of his vision, passion, and perseverance, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign became the first post-secondary institution to offer a program of support services to students with disabilities, the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), the service unit of the College of Applied Health Sciences. Since its establishment, DRES has not only helped thousands of students with disabilities earn college degrees, but has made the Urbana-Champaign campus a leader in the area of post-secondary education for persons with disabilities. Under Dr. Nugent’s leadership, the University achieved a number of significant “firsts” in serving people with disabilities:

  1. The first curb cuts at a post-secondary institution
  2. The first fixed-route buses with wheelchair lifts
  3. The first college-level adapted sports and recreation program
  4. The first study abroad program for students with disabilities
  5. The first and still the only residential program to serve students with severe disabilities who require assistance in performing daily living tasks
  6. The first state-of-the-art residence hall integrating students with and without disabilities in a unique living-learning community
12 dignitaries cut ribbon in front of the Center for Wounded Veterans

In addition, seminal research at the University of Illinois led to the development of the first architectural accessibility standards that were later adopted by the American National Standards Institute.

Continuing DRES’s tradition of programmatic innovations, the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education opened in the fall of 2015. The Center’s mission is to provide a range of support services to empower student veterans with disabilities to realize their potential through a world-class educational experience that prepares them to lead fulfilling, meaningful, and maximally independent lives. Through educational innovations, research breakthroughs, and a dedicated staff of counselors and specialists, the Center supports student veterans’ health and full participation in society.

Our programs and services are based on the University’s long history of leadership in disability services and a passionate commitment to serve our nation’s veterans and their families from an individual and personal perspective in the context of a transformative learning experience from one of the world’s leading universities. Students enrolled at the University of Illinois and their families are served through comprehensive and individualized plans that contain a range of transition, academic, physical and mental health, and career services. Additionally, research connected to veterans with disabilities is critical to improve the services provided and enhance the quality of their lives and the lives of their families. As such, the Center is becoming a place to explore innovative methods, develop new assistive technologies, test important questions, and discover treatments in a wide variety of disciplines.