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Veterans Upward Bound grad makes it to the top

September 08, 2008

When Joseph Little was discharged from the Army after the Vietnam War, he had severe physical and emotional injuries.

Though he wanted to go to college, his doctors and vocational rehabilitation counselors told him he would never be able to earn a degree.

So, for the next 30 years, he was a test driver for General Motors, sold insurance and drove trucks, among other jobs -- and tried to go to college several times.

The idea of school never left him, but he had no hope until, around 1999, a friend encouraged him to pay a visit to ASU's Veterans Upward Bound program.

That trip to ASU was a turning point for Little, who beat all the odds and now holds a master's degree in social work and counsels veterans at the Phoenix Veterans Center.

Little will be honored for his educational and career accomplishments at the national convention of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) in Washington, D.C. next month.

Each year, COE honors students who have gone through any TRiO program -- which includes Veterans Upward Bound -- and have demonstrated remarkable success. TRiO is the umbrella for a group of federal programs that offer help to disadvantaged students and veterans.

VUB was instituted by the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1972. It offers a free educational and skills program for veterans who wish to go to college, prepare for their GED, or simply take the classes for personal growth.

ASU's VUB program offers classes in English, math and computers, with instruction, counseling, textbooks and supplies all provided at no cost to the students.

Little recalls that when he first went to ASU's VUB offices, he thought the staff was "not playing with a full deck" because they were too happy, and smiling too much.

But he found that the warmth and encouragement were genuine. He began taking classes at ASU and a community college at the same time, dropping into the VUB offices after class to do his homework.

"They helped me out. And Frank Evans (who nominated Little for the honor) wouldn't let me give up."

After he finished his bachelor's degree at ASU, he went on to earn his graduate degree. Little now recommends VUB to other veterans "to bridge the gap" between military service and college or civilian life. "It helps build their confidence in their abilities to achieve something," he said.

Little, who suffered head trauma in the war and has had 50 surgeries for his war wounds, said VUB helped him become the first one in his family to graduate from college.

At the Phoenix Veterans Center, where he has worked since 1998, Little, a former Army Ranger, "has dedicated himself to working with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder," said Robert Pena, director of ASU's VUB. "His clients range from World War II veterans to those dealing issues from our present conflicts."

Little is the first VUB graduate to be honored by COE. He was selected as one of six winners from a national pool of 52 nominees.

"It's a tremendous honor for Joseph as well as for our program," Pena said. "For all the years that the VUB program has been in existence here at ASU, since 1972, we believe that this is the first time that one of our graduates has been so honored."