November 2022 Veterans Day event at Loyola University Chicago (photo by Lukas Keapproth)

Founded in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola, soldier and saint, Loyola University Chicago holds a distinct commitment to serving veterans and their families. Military-affiliated individuals, including veterans, spouses, and dependents, know what it means to answer a call of service and justice–and many of them find a similar sense of purpose at Loyola.

Recently featured in the Lifetime TV show, Military Makeover: Operation Career, Loyola’s unique appeal to veterans was captured by Branden Marty, a U.S. Navy veteran and 2022 graduate of Loyola’s highly selective, cohort-based Baumhart Scholars MBA program.

“Loyola is led by people of service, not just from a military or veteran perspective, but people who want to do good and uplift their community,” Marty said. “The Loyola experience is special. I think whether you’re talking to professors, students, faculty, or the administration, everyone really believes in service beyond themselves, and the mission, and Jesuit core beliefs. Taking time to reflect on the work we’ve done, where we’ve been, and understand how we could do better is a very Jesuit action. Those things are similar to what I experienced in the military, as well as what I experienced at Loyola and still do today.”

Alex Pirila, director of Loyola’s Office of Military Veteran Student Services (MVSS) and a Marine Corps veteran, is inspired by the synergy. “Something not many people realize is that St. Ignatius was a student veteran himself. After serving, he went back to school in his thirties alongside students much younger than him and went on to change the world. I want our student veterans to know that that’s their story too. Anything is possible.”

Pirila’s office strives to support the successful transition of student veterans from military service to the University and beyond. As a testament to the passionate engagement of its student veterans, Loyola’s Student Veterans of America chapter has been consistently recognized as one of the top chapters in the country. Past president Josh Jones, a fellow Marine Corps veteran, was named Student Veteran of the Year in 2022, out of 1,500 chapters representing more than 750,000 total student veterans. Pirila was one of five finalists for Advisor of the Year and the chapter as a whole was nominated for Chapter of the Year, resulting in an invitation to speak on behalf of all student veterans nationwide at the 103rd American Legion National Convention.

These accolades represent not only the deep sense of community, support, and pride that student veterans have worked to build on campus at Loyola, but a great deal of activity off campus as well. Last year, Jones successfully launched his nonprofit project, Chicago Brigade, to establish a community of veterans in higher education seeking mentorship, development, and employment opportunities. He has also been tirelessly engaged in advocating for expanded student veteran funding on the local, state, and national levels, including a recent trip to Washington, D.C.

While Jones and fellow student veterans raise awareness of these issues, Pirila and a group of fellow University leaders have been working diligently to holistically improve the student veteran experience at Loyola–culminating in the University’s expanded commitment to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon Program, which supplements veterans’ post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. Beginning this academic year, Loyola is providing an unlimited match fully covering tuition and fees for all programs except the Stritch School of Medicine, reinforcing the University’s overall commitment to furthering access and attainability in higher education.

In May 2023, building on this incredible momentum, Pirila was awarded a $583,747 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand his office’s professional capacity and reinforce the experience of student veterans. With the grant, MVSS has been able to hire new staff and establish a physical community center for student veterans on campus that will be dedicated on Veterans Day with U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in attendance.

“Our Veterans put their country over themselves time after time, tour after tour. And when these heroes come home, they deserve more than just an ovation on Veterans Day: they deserve to be honored the other 364 days of the year, as well,” Duckworth said. “I’m proud to see Loyola University Chicago committing to supporting its student Veteran population and I’m honored to be here to help open this new Veterans Center.”

Loyola President Mark C. Reed, Ed.D. spoke to the growth of the MVSS office leading to the founding of this physical center. “Since its founding in 2014, the Office of Military Veteran Student Services has provided dedicated support and resources for our student veterans and their families as they transition from military service to higher education,” Dr. Reed said. “This new community center will create a special place of mutual support for our military-affiliated students to foster a stronger sense of community and belonging at Loyola. We warmly welcome student veterans to campus and remain committed to their educational and career success.”

Invigorated and looking toward future opportunities to better serve student veterans, Pirila remains mindful of the past. “Much of the legislative advocacy our students have been engaged in was born over coffees in a cubicle–and it went all the way to Capitol Hill. It has been amazing to see the passion of our students, and the support from the University and the U.S. Department of Education. Imagining what we can accomplish with these expanded resources; I can’t help but to think of Ignatius leaving that cramped classroom in Barcelona and starting out on his journey to set the world on fire.”

Contributed by the Office of University Marketing and Communication at Loyola University Chicago