Open Doors

One of the world’s leading universities, Illinois was the first to call for compulsory military training at all land grant colleges, as part of the Morrill Act of 1862. We developed the first post-secondary disability support service program in the world for Veterans. Established by Dr. Tim Nugent, this program allowed injured WWII Veterans to use their GI Bill benefits for higher education. Continuing this progressive legacy, the Chez Veterans Center, a comprehensive facility designed to serve student Veterans and military-connected individuals, is the first of its kind in the US.

Stakeholders cutting ribbon at ribbon cutting ceremony of the Chez Veterans Center.

A History of Serving Veterans

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

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.

Two men in wheel chairs looking at one man in wheel chair being lifted down wheelchair accessible bus.  Another man stands next to ramp, lowering ramp.  Image is in black and white.

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 when it opened, was 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 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 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 technologies, test important questions, and discover treatments in a wide variety of disciplines.

In 2019, after students advocated for a name change, the Center’s name changed to the Chez Veterans Center. This name change reflects that the Center serves all Veteran and military-connected students, including those without severe wounds. The name change allowed opportunity to revisit and update the Center’s mission, values, and vision.