Army Veteran Salutes GSU
2019 Graduate Profiles
Anyone who joins the U.S. military can expect more structure in their life. But what happens when soldiers become civilians again? For some, that’s when the struggle begins—from finding housing to coping with mental health issues.
Fortunate veterans in the South Suburbs have found a helping hand in Barbara Grgurich.
When she graduates in May from Governors State University, the former U.S. Army sergeant will be poised to combine six years of military service with her Bachelor of Social Work degree to help homeless veterans.
“People think they’ll be in for life, but then they get hurt and have a medical discharge. Or they leave the military with no idea of where they’re going to go,” Grgurich said. “Couch-surfing can lead to homelessness, especially if you have undiagnosed mental health issues.”
Grgurich’s own stint in the Army began after high school. Interested in law, she focused on corrections, working in military prisons at bases around the country and even at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where detainees are housed.
“At my last brig in California, the case managers were social workers. Instead of just letting prisoners sit in a cell, they were running programs to fight recidivism. That seemed like a really good idea, and that’s how I got interested in social work,” she said.
Grgurich received an honorable discharge in 2015 and began pursuing her new career. She was initially drawn to GSU because of its affordability and proximity to Monee, where her family lives. When she enrolled as a freshman at the age of 27, she was older than many of her classmates. But she also felt at home on a campus filled with nontraditional adult learners, including those who had served in the military.
Grgurich was hired immediately by GSU’s award-winning Veterans Resource Center, which was a perfect fit for blending her military experience with a desire to smooth veterans’ transition to civilian life.
“I started processing veterans to get their benefits, like the G.I. Bill, and finding neighborhood resources like Helping Hands, a nonprofit that provides furniture, household items and business clothing,” she said of her work-study job. “I’m basically at the front desk every day.”
When it came to her social work classes, Grgurich said, she found the curriculum practical and applicable. “Social work is all about self-care to help you keep going in the face of challenges,” she said. “One of the best courses I took was on that subject. It means more than just taking a break—you have to talk through issues. It’s also about things like eating right, being out in nature, getting exercise. That’s important.”
Beyond the classroom, Grgurich got valuable experience through an internship at the Prince Home, a program for homeless and disabled veterans located near the Veterans' Home in Manteno. She also became president of GSU’s chapter of the Student Veterans Organization and president of the campus Social Work Student Organization. Holding leadership positions in each group meant organizing trips to Springfield so dozens of students could learn how to reach out to legislators and urge them to support upcoming bills.
“It’s exciting,” Grgurich said of both events. “The students talk to the elected officials, so it’s not just a teaching day because they’re actually doing the work.”
After graduation, Grgurich will head to the University of Illinois at Chicago to earn a master’s degree, broadening her network and following in the footsteps of other veterans who have mentored her. But she said she’s recommended GSU to plenty of nontraditional students like herself.
“I just told a 37-year-old mother of two, ‘You’ll fit right in here.’ The staff and the faculty will work with you really well because ensuring your success here our is top priority.”