Rick Passarelli, Director of Veterans Affairs and Workforce Development

The economic and mental health challenges our veterans face due to this pandemic are distressing, particularly for those leaving military service and entering civilian life. There’s a lot that keeps me up at night worrying about these individuals, but there are also reasons to be hopeful. The 24th graduating class of the Utility Workers Military Assistance Program (UMAP) offers a silver lining. Their story encapsulates the good coming out of the adversity we face today.

The excitement students felt as they embarked on a new career path and hope for a job were dashed when Dawson Technical Institute shut down because of the pandemic in the spring. While the program was closed, several organizations stepped up to provide the students with grocery gift cards to help them support their families, but students were forced to consider other options outside of the program. “That was a scary moment,” said student, Latesia Harrington.

We at UMAP got to work immediately, making our case to the City of Chicago and to Dawson Technical that these students and the program itself should be designated “essential” and allowed to reopen classes. We actually became the first program to open back up across the city. All eyes were on us with regard to protocols for how to move forward beyond our class of students.

According to program instructor, Brian Murray, “It was a challenge especially for the students. You’d have to talk loud, all of the instruction took longer in this environment.” In the end, none of the students left the program and everyone graduated on August 6.

“Some of us could have left the program and looked into other options, but we chose not to,” said Harrington. “We looked at the full scope of things, and knew that there was a career waiting for us. We all stuck it out and it was the right decision!”

Without the essential worker designation we secured, help from community groups along the way and the dedication and determination of our students and instructors, this situation certainly would have ended differently. On August 10 this group of individuals started their careers with Peoples Gas, and a few weeks later our most diverse UMAP cohort yet — including five women — started their UMAP journey. There’s a lot this terrible pandemic has taken away, but while we can, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the small victories that’s come from it. Congratulations UMAP cohort 24!