SHERIDAN — Jason Billings, a six-year army veteran, remembers the difficulty of going back to school after serving in the military. At his previous school, Billings said he floundered. He was stressed, had anxiety and didn’t have the resources to cope with all of that.
After a few years, Billings decided to try school again, this time at Sheridan College. There, he received support from the college’s veterans center.
“It’s a place that (veterans) can come to feel comfortable,” Billings said. “A place that I can go get help. It opens up that avenue, because most military guys and women won’t ask for help if things get difficult. We’re taught to just carry on, continue the mission.”
The college’s veterans program started in fall 2011. Brett Burtis, who served in the Marine Corps for 20 years, was its first advisor, and he met students in his small office. Burtis is now the director of advising services at the college.
The first veterans center opened in the fall of 2012 thanks to financial support from the Marna M. Kuehne Foundation, which funds many of the veterans programs at the school, current veterans advisor Tyler Jensen said.
It was considered a temporary center, because the university planned to have a permanent center when the Thorne-Rider Campus Center was expanded and remodeled. That permanent center opened in 2014 and is the current location for the program. In addition to Jensen’s office, the center has a computer lab, conference room, TV, Xbox, a few tables and chairs, and a small kitchenette area.
“We’re super fortunate to have the space that we do, especially in a small Wyoming community college,” Jensen said.
Jensen has held his position since April 2016, and said Burtis deserves credit for building the program.
Jensen was interested in the job because he said he felt he could really relate to the students.
“I was National Guard,” he said. “I wasn’t active duty, but I was deployed (to Iraq), so I know what it was like to come back and be the older guy in the classroom.”
As the veterans advisor, Jensen is a one-stop shop for all student veteran needs and concerns. Jensen said there are 55 student veterans and 11 dependent students at the college. That number has gradually increased over time. Burtis said the number was in the low 50s when he started in 2011.
Despite the growing population being served, Jensen said his job allows him to get to know most of them pretty well, no matter their situation.
Hunter Wohlers, an Army veteran, said he utilizes the veterans center every day. Wohlers said he has been out of school for 12 years, but the space allows him the opportunity to talk to others in similar situations.
“You can make friends here and you can work together on assignments,” Wohlers said. “You can just kind of relate to everybody in here.”
Jensen also is in charge of veteran center programming, which is divided up into four main areas: academic, personal, job readiness and social.
Academic programs include a study skills workshop and test-taking strategies. For personal help, the center uses Dave Ramsey’s personal finance curriculum for students each week. Job readiness programming involves resume workshops and mock job interviews. Socially, Jensen coordinates a few fun activities, including a fantasy football league, to give students the chance to participate and belong to a group.
Of course, Jensen cannot do everything on his own, but said his local connections come in handy.
“It’s a pretty veteran-friendly community,” Jensen said. “If someone comes to me with an issue and we can’t help them, I at least know who to refer them to.”
Despite all the positives, there are challenging aspects as well. Burtis said the student veteran graduation rate is between 20 and 30 percent, a little lower than the non-veteran student rate.
“That is one of my overarching goals this year, to help improve our graduation and retention rates,” Jensen said. “It’s one of the things we’ll have to continuously look at throughout the years to see if we can improve on it. I wish I had a great answer for you now, but some of this is going to be trial and error.”
Burtis is optimistic, and said he thinks the graduation rates will improve and potentially exceed the overall college graduation rate, because the veterans that are coming in are more committed to the program and have better support.”
Still, the main reason the center exists is for student veteran support and camaraderie, and, at least for Billings, it is working.
“Even though I didn’t serve with these guys, there’s still a common core,” Billings said. “I know these guys got my back.”