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Corliss De La Garza still gets chills thinking about his story. As a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), she worked with an Iraq War veteran who was paralyzed and traumatized. His was a challenging case for De La Garza, but she was able to convince him to take some college classes. It wasn’t long before he told her, “I want to be a lawyer to advocate for veterans.” The Army veteran, who recently graduated from law school, is now on his way to achieving his goal.
“We have a lot of success stories like that,” says De la Garza, who is now enjoying a second chapter in her own career.
After a long stint in the hotel industry, she decided to stay home with her children. Years later, she stopped by Maryville University to get more information and was instantly won over. “The campus was beautiful, the students looked happy, and I felt like I could fit in,” she says.
Her arrival at Maryville followed the tragic events of 9/11, and the Iraq War. “I was interested in the psychological aspect of that,” she says. The late Judy McGee, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, suggested rehabilitation counseling. As it turns out, the program was an excellent fit. “It just changed my life,” De la Garza says.
“The level of assistance we can provide is incredible. Really, with a suitable career goal, the sky’s the limit. It’s a fantastic program and I’m grateful to be part of it.”
In 2005, she received her master’s in rehabilitation counseling. “Our class was a tight-knit group of students and the professors provided a lot of personal attention,” De La Garza says. “The environment allowed for everyone to express their opinions; I remember many lively discussions about social issues at the time.”
An internship at the VA Regional Office Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Division led to a full-time job in 2006. She is now division chief for the VR&E office at the St. Louis regional office. Her division serves roughly 2,000 veterans. De la Garza manages a staff of 20 counselors and support staff, including four fellow Maryville graduates.
“All the veterans in our program have disabilities acquired while serving, and come to us to adjust and reinvent themselves,” she says. Based on their interest, aptitude and ability, counselors work with them to identify an attainable career goal.
“If a client wants to be an engineer, we can authorize payment for engineering school; if a client wants to be a truck driver, training is provided,” De la Garza says. “Our goal is to empower veterans so they can go back into the workforce and move on with their lives. The level of assistance we can provide is incredible. Really, with a suitable career goal, the sky’s the limit. It’s a fantastic program and I’m grateful to be part of it.”
De la Garza maintains friendships with many of her classmates, and some of those relationships extend professionally. Tara Klucker, CPC, LPC, for instance, a former classmate, is now director of programs and evaluations at St. Louis Regional Chapter of the ALS Association. As there are veterans who have ALS, De la Garza and Klucker are able to work together and provide the help a veteran needs.
Reflecting back on her Maryville experience and her career, De la Garza says, “I feel so lucky to have found my purpose.”