Military veteran overcomes hardships to obtain math degree

One in a series of stories about DePaul University’s Class of 2017

Lucas Estelle
Lucas Estelle, who earned a degree in mathematical sciences, is an Army veteran who has been fascinated by numbers and probability since he was a child inventing coin-flipping games. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
CHICAGO —  Lucas Estelle always loved math.

He invented coin-flipping games as a child, toying with probability before he ever understood the mathematical concept. But it wasn’t until he became a student at DePaul University that he got hooked on applied mathematics and actuarial science.
 
“I can see the numbers,” said the 37-year-old Army veteran who grew up in the Brainerd neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
 
Estelle is set to graduate this June with a Bachelor of Science in mathematical sciences and a minor in theatre after overcoming homelessness and depression. He credits DePaul faculty and staff for getting him this far. They helped him find a place to live when he was homeless and maintained contact when he dropped out for a year for personal reasons.
 
“My degree is just icing on the cake,” Estelle says. “DePaul lives its mission of helping out, and that’s something I’m trying to incorporate in my life.”
 
His atypical combination of studies stems from an early desire to become a math teacher at a junior college after seeing adults in his neighborhood struggle with the subject.
 
“I learned from a math professor in high school the benefit of clever banter (when teaching),” Estelle said. “So the theatre minor is for performance.”
 
He is among DePaul’s growing student veteran population, which is one of the largest at Chicago universities and 10th largest in the state, according to U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs data on GI Bill beneficiaries.
 
Estelle is also an example of the increased number of student veterans pursuing a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree based on a recent Student Veterans of America study. STEM degrees are second to business, the report showed.
 
Going to college was not an easy path for Estelle. His plans of attending Chicago State University as a math major derailed over incomplete financial aid paperwork, so he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2001. During his years of military service, Estelle spent a year in Georgia before being stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa for three years doing satellite communications work. Then he landed in Arizona before deployment to Iraq for more than a year. He returned to Arizona as an Army recruiter and was medically discharged in 2011.
 
Estelle came in contact with two schools during his service — one he helped build while deployed in the Philippines, the other while in Iraq.
 
“It was like God’s way of saying, ‘Go back to school,’” he said. Estelle earned an associate degree in science from Richard J. Daley College after returning to Chicago. A teacher then suggested he apply to DePaul, but he was apprehensive.
 
“The day that I got accepted was one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. “I didn’t think I could get in.”
 
He was taking math and theatre classes by 2013 and putting what he learned into practice.
 
“He was very active and kept the class going,” said Christopher Drupieski, an associate professor in math who taught Estelle in two classes. “From the get-go, he was not afraid to go to the (front) board and not afraid to be wrong.”
 
But personal issues began to haunt Estelle, and he dropped out a year later. DePaul faculty kept in touch and connected him with the university’s Center for Students with Disabilities and the department of Adult, Veteran and Commuter Student Affairs. When he became homeless, DePaul helped him secure a place to live. He returned as a student in 2015.
 
“As I got over each hump, I gained confidence,” he said.
 
Estelle plans to take actuarial exams after graduation and secure a job with an insurance or professional services firm.
 
“I’m hoping later down the line I’ll get to that point to teach math, but I’ve come to realize that there is more than one way of teaching,” he said.
 
He satisfies his desire to help others by volunteering at a soup kitchen and working as a veteran liaison for DePaul, where he helps other student veterans learn about medical and college benefits and services available to them.
 
“He’s the most positive person I’ve ever met, said Megan Burda, assistant director of DePaul’s Adult, Veteran and Commuter Student Affairs. “He gets the most students involved in our events.”

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Media Contact: 
Lorene Yue
Lyue3@depaul.edu
312-362-7788