When National Guard Staff Sgt. Josh Day needs help navigating a problem with a class or a veterans' benefit program, he knows he can turn to the veterans' resource center at Ridgewater College. Ridgewater was recently named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine. The magazine ranks U.S. schools and awards the designation to the top 15 percent.
Day, 26, of Belview, is taking his general education classes at Ridgewater in Willmar and plans to transfer to pursue a bachelor's degree in sociology. Day has been deployed twice, first to Kosovo and then to Iraq.
Charles Egerstrom, from the state's Higher Education Veterans Program, travels between four college campuses in west central Minnesota, offering information and advice. He served in the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division and served a combat deployment to Iraq. Egerstrom was able to help him sort through a problem with a class when he had a rocky start in his college career, Day said.
"Now, I'm really enjoying trying to get an education," he said. "The teachers have been wonderful; when I have to go for training, they've been real good about it."
His long-term plans are "up in the air," he said, as he is still active in the National Guard, assigned to the 850th Horizontal Engineering Company at Cambridge.
Egerstrom is the front man for an effort that involves many others on campus and in the community.
At a pizza party for veterans Tuesday on the Willmar campus, Kandiyohi County Veterans Service Officer Trisha Appeldorn praised the college's efforts.
"When the state hired these campus reps, it took a big weight off our shoulders," she said. County veterans service officers work with veterans of all ages and with many different needs.
"Charles is a good resource to keep these guys in school and not let those benefits expire," she said.
Egerstrom said he acts as a liaison with colleges. "I help the campus develop veteran-friendly policies," he said.
Some veterans may be eligible for a variety of programs, he said, and he can counsel them on what might be the best fit.
"They plan their educational goals, and we help them pay for it," he said.
Mike Nistler, 29, said he appreciated the help getting settled when he first came to the campus. He also felt accepted at Ridgewater: "People don't judge you."
Nistler, originally from Richmond and now living in Hutchinson, served in the U.S. Army for eight years. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Nistler came to school at Ridgewater after he was wounded overseas and received a medical discharge. He loved the military life, he said, and it has been a difficult transition at times.
"I miss it every day," he said. He went all over the world with the Airborne, he said, and "that was my lifestyle." He served two combat deployments, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Nistler praised the guidance he's gotten from Jennifer Gibson, the college's school success coordinator.
"I work with underrepresented students, and these guys sure are," she said. She said Nistler is an incredibly dedicated student.
Nistler called himself a "C and D student" in high school, but he's on the honor roll at Ridgewater, where he is studying health information technologies. "I'm proud of my GPA," he said. "It's no joke to me, this right here."
Egerstrom said he often helps veterans make plans for deployment.
Heidi Olson, dean of student services, said the college offers options for students who are deployed in the middle of a term.
Some students continue to take classes online. "Determination is a word that doesn't really describe that kind of commitment," she added.
In addition to providing information about veterans' benefits, the college's resource centers for veterans offer a place to grab a snack, hang out for a while and get advice for navigating the ups and downs of college, Olson said.
Ridgewater has about 80 veteran/students in Willmar and about 40 in Hutchinson, she said.
"We know our population is larger than 120 students," she said, but not all of them have been easy to identify.
In addition to providing the center, which is required by law, the college has also brought in speakers to educate the staff and faculty about the needs of veterans, "to help them understand the experience of veterans and transitions."
As a group, veterans do well in school, Olson said.
If someone is struggling with academic or mental health issues, the college will try to find them the services they need, she said. "We try to identify problems quickly."