By Vicki Hildner
If, when he was in high school, someone had told Lucas Ellison that he would eventually study to become a neurologist, he knows what he would have said:
“I would have asked ‘What’s that?’”
But today, with the help of the GI Bill, a receptive university community and veteran assistance from Cameron Cook, that’s exactly what Ellison is studying.
“I think of myself as a translator,” says Cook, Veteran Student Services Manager at the university. “If you served in a foreign country, you probably used a translator. At the university, you still might need one to learn about all the VA benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Ellison, 29, grew up in an Air Force family and lived in many places around the world. When he graduated from high school, his family had no money for college, so he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He did three tours of duty in Iraq.
“People I knew were killed,” says Ellison. “The main thing that hit me when someone died is that I would never hear their voice again.”
At the end of his third tour of duty, Ellison decided it was time to look for new opportunities. In 2008, he moved from the West Coast to Denver with his wife and three children and started looking for a job. It was the height of the recession, and this ex-Marine—who had repaired guided missile systems— could not find anyone who would hire him.
“I tried for a year to get work, and I couldn’t find a job for the life of me,” he remembers. Finally, he returned to school, starting at a community college. “Some days going back to college was scarier than serving in Iraq.”
Enter Cameron Cook. Cook had also served in Iraq.
“I called the Marine Corps to volunteer on 9/11. It began as a rash decision, but once the anger wore off, I realized it was the best decision for me personally.
When he left the Corps, Cook bounced around, studying to become a paramedic and working for Veterans Upward Bound before he found his true calling with Veteran Student Services at the University of Colorado Denver.
“This is a great school for returning vets,” says Cook. “The location of the Denver campus makes it easy to find jobs. And because these are non-traditional campuses, with students of all ages, vets feel like they fit right in here.”
At the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, Cook says, there were 315 students connected to the military at the university. Now, he believes there are more than 700. “The VA predicts that number will triple in the next three years,” says Cook.
Cook sees strength in numbers. He says he has built the largest student organization on the CU Denver campus, made up of returning veterans—and the largest student veteran organization in the state of Colorado. “These returning vets deserve a memorable college experience,” Cook says. “Bringing them together means they can socialize with others who have had common experiences as well as collaborate to navigate the university system.”
This supportive community paved the way for Lucas Ellison to move from community college to CU Denver where he began his pre-med studies. “I wanted to go to a quality university” says Ellison. “I had no idea how to apply. Cameron Cook answered every question I had.”
Ellison says applying for scholarships at the university was easy, and today, as a Reisher Scholar, he is taking classes he hopes will lead to medical school at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“My professors do not treat me like a kid,” he says. “They are respectful. Cameron Cook has helped me maximize my GI benefits, and my fellow vets have my back. So, I can’t stop now.”