‘Re-entering civilian life can be tough’: Helping service members transition to new careers

SkillBridge program provides veterans at UChicago with opportunities for internships, employment and education

Each year, approximately 200,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces will leave active duty and re-enter civilian life. After nine years in the Marine Corps, Joe Quinn was one of them. He knew he wanted to get a graduate degree in economics or public policy, but he didn’t know where to begin.

A first-generation college student who earned his bachelor’s degree while enlisted, Quinn sifted through several hundred programs that help transitioning service members, and the University of Chicago stood out.

“I was an enlisted Marine stationed in Texas, hours away from anywhere most people have heard of, with aspirations of graduate school and no idea how to get there,” Quinn said. “But I was able to come to UChicago to get relevant experience, build up a CV and start down a very solid path toward my goals.”

Last year, Quinn was the first enlisted intern through the University of Chicago’s SkillBridge program, an initiative of the Department of Defense that connects service members to industry partners who provide valuable civilian work experience during the last six months of military service. After being matched with an internship at the UChicago Center for the Economics of Human Development, Quinn began taking classes at the Harris School for Public Policy, where he is now a master’s student.

“I would absolutely not be in graduate school right now were it not for this program.”

Launched by the Office of the Provost’s Equal Opportunity Program in October 2021, SkillBridge is administered through UChicago’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities (OMAC). Since the program started last year, it has helped 17 transitioning service members get an early start on their civilian careers by providing internships, employment opportunities and a chance to pursue their educational goals.

“Our program is unique among the thousands of other SkillBridge offerings across the country, because we enable transition to civilian life not just into employment, but also into the educational space,” said Terrell Odom, director of OMAC. The Department of Defense program, which began nationally in 2018, was designed to focus solely on employment. But Odom saw that nearly 60 percent of service members were interested in going back to school.

“I knew that UChicago and all its offerings could support them through internships across various academic and administrative units, while also giving them an opportunity to pursue higher education,” he said.

Nick Macius, a First Lieutenant in the Marines, began an internship with the Executive MBA team at the Booth School of Business in June, and is currently preparing to apply to Chicago Booth. Coming back to the University of Chicago, where he finished his undergrad in 2018, offered a familiar and compelling intellectual community.

“My SkillBridge internship here has allowed me a lot of time and the ability to focus on my interests and desires to ultimately return to UChicago as a graduate student myself,” Macius said.

Thanks to a new partnership with UChicago’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, four SkillBridge participants are now interning in the Center’s Clinical Trials Support Unit, where they help with data management, research coordination and regulatory coordination.

“These highly trained and motivated service members’ expertise and skills directly translate to the talent we seek in clinical researchers,” said Lauren Wall, senior director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Clinical Trials Support Office. Two of these interns are now able to use the research experience they’ve gained at the center in their applications to medical school.

OMAC serves as a central hub for resources, support and programming for the University’s entire military-affiliated community—including current and potential students, alumni, faculty, staff and their families. UChicago, recently ranked No. 2 in Best Colleges for Veterans by U.S. News & World Report, tries to support its military community holistically—be it navigating enrolling children in school or helping those trying to buy a house.

Two of the Cancer Center’s SkillBridge interns, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Jacob Morris and his wife, Jessica, are first-time homeowners. The necessary paperwork and deadlines were overwhelming, and the OMAC team stepped up to make sure all the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted.

“In a sense, we really got our home because of Terrell and Lauren, in a roundabout way,” Morris said. “Jessica and I are amazed at all the opportunities we’ve been afforded and how everyone has worked to get the best for us.”

Jacob Morris will be speaking at UChicago's annual Veterans Day event on Nov. 11 about his experiences and how OMAC helped him transition to civilian life. The program, which will also feature other military-affiliated persons from across the University, will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at UChicago’s International House. You can register to attend the event HERE.

Odom hopes that in the future, they’ll be able to welcome up to 100 SkillBridge participants every year, noting that several other units across the University have already expressed interest.

“Re-entering civilian life can be tough for anyone. I know it was for me when I made the transition 18 years ago,” said Odom, who served as a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy. “But UChicago is trying to help bridge those gaps, and we get to benefit from the skills and experience of our nation’s finest. It’s a win-win.”