When Eleazar Castro rejoined civilian life after four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he needed money, and he needed it fast.
Castro, 26, joined the Marines one week after graduating from Pace High School in 2000, a decision he called a natural option because of his years of involvement in the school’s MCJROTC program and the Drum and Bugle Corps.
During his four-year enlistment, Castro, who eventually rose to the rank of corporal, worked as an administrative clerk at a Virginia military base. After his honorable discharge, Castro found himself in a situation he said many young veterans face.
“It is like starting over again just out of high school,” Castro said. “Many people from the Rio Grande Valley who finish their years of service come home and don’t have a lot of options, and it can be very intimidating. I was no different.”
Although Castro wanted to pursue his education, he said he needed money to support his family. Castro said he decided to join the workforce without having full knowledge of how his service to his country afforded him a wealth of financial opportunities related to earning a college degree.
“I worked for about a year and a half before I even decided to go back to school,” Castro said. “It was my brother that helped push me into pursuing a college degree. He worked in the President’s Office at UTB/TSC and would search for scholarships and financial aid opportunities for me.”
That was when Castro heard about the Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program, which provides assistance to veterans toward obtaining a college degree. However, when he enrolled for classes in 2005, Castro said he did not take advantage of the program – a decision he regrets.
“I think I was sort of skeptical, in a way, of the program. I thought there would be a catch to it,” he said. “But mainly I was not informed of how much help they do for you. So, I did it all on my own the first year.”
It was not until 2006 that Castro said he was placed in VUB through the GoCenter scholarship work study program. After seeing other veterans receiving guidance, he realized what the program had to offer.
“When I saw how they were helping other students and that there was no catch, I became a part of the program, and I was able to take advantage of many scholarships and resources that are specifically for veterans,” said Castro, an education major.
Castro is currently wrapping up his last semester working in the VUB program and said he has enjoyed helping students find ways to pay for college while debunking myths about financial aid for veterans.
“I think a lot of veterans don’t know what kind of help there is,” Castro said. “For example, a lot of people believe you cannot use your GI Bill if you qualify for a Pell Grant, and that is just not true. You can use it in addition to any federal financial assistance you receive from your university’s financial aid office; they are totally separate.”
In the last report published for 2006-2007, VUB assisted 125 students. All received monetary aid ranging from student grants to scholarships.
Castro said there are programs, like the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), that pay for school if a student is studying in one of the critical careers identified by the U.S. Department of Labor and meets eligibility requirements.
Georgiana Velarde, assistant director of Financial Aid, said students should apply for federal aid as early as possible for the 2009 academic year.
“The results from the application are used to determine your financial aid award package, which may include federal grants or loans,” Velarde said.
VUB Program Director David Rivera encourages all veterans to stop by their office early for information even before they apply for admission.
“If veterans come here, we can help them in every aspect,” he said. “We know their plate is full, and we don’t want it to overflow.
They come here and we help them get all their paperwork together and ready, instead of them going from one office on campus to another, we tell them what they will need so they can get it all at once for everything from admissions to financial aid to advising.”