Boots made for serving and schooling: Campus veterans thriving at MSUM

By Aaron Simmons

Being a successful college student is tough enough. Now, imagine you just returned home from the front lines of military service and want to get an education. There is a whole new set of challenges.

MSUM has a plethora of veterans on campus with widely differing backgrounds, but the reasons they are here are fairly universal: to better themselves and to take advantage of their government benefits.

Strip mall shakeup produces success

In the aftermath of 9/11, Jen Kalvoda knew she had to serve her country in order to be a part of something greater than herself, resulting in her 2003 decision to enlist. She had every intention of walking into the Air Force recruiting office, filling out the proper paperwork and beginning her military career with the branch that protects the skies.

There was only one problem­—the Air Force recruiting office was closed that day. However, its neighbor wasn’t.

“They were in a strip mall, I kid you not,” Kalvoda said. “Air Force was on the left, Army was on the right.”

It seems her military destiny was already set, and she chose the Army.

Within four days, she was sworn in. That slight strip-mall wrinkle in her personal plan was quickly ironed out, as she had a successful eight-year run with the Army. Serving a tour of just under a year, Kalvoda was deployed to Kuwait in 2005 during Operation Iraqi Freedom as an administrative specialist.

After returning home in August 2006, Kalvoda took advantage of her government benefits quickly and enrolled at MSUM the following January. Though college was ready for her, she was not ready for it.

“I failed almost all of my classes,” Kalvoda said. “What I didn’t fail I withdrew from. I didn’t reacclimate as well as I thought I had, and I got in over my head and didn’t realize it until a few semesters in … I was suspended from school, and life went on.”

Ten years later, she is finding her school success as a junior studying accounting and finance.

Even though making time for coursework is much more difficult this time around, with a rigid support system from her two boys and a husband that loves school, she now has a stronger drive to make this trip her last.

“I just aimlessly wandered through life when I first got home,” Kalvoda said. “Now, things are far more stable again and it’s nice. While I don’t have that (on-campus) school experience, I’m not missing it like I did the first time. Ten years ago, I felt like I was missing something. This time, it’s just nice to get into my classes, do my own thing, and get them completed and done.”

Seeing the world through the Navy

Many children from military families follow in the footsteps of their parents. For Tralonie Perkins, filling those shoes was a given, but he wanted to write his own story.

“My dad was a marine, and he pushed me to go Air Force at the time when I was in high school,” Perkins said. “I was in a junior ROTC, so I liked it, but I also wanted to try something different, so I went into the Navy.”

Perkins did his first tour stationed in Guam aboard the USS Frank Cable, a submarine tender. One of the biggest driving forces for him joining the military was being able to see the world and earn money for school. However, he had eventually seen enough.

“It was my first time being on the boat, so three years of ship life was challenging for me, which is why I am no longer associated with the Navy,” Perkins said with a laugh.

Though not living on the sea anymore, he currently holds an administrative position with the North Dakota Air National Guard. He has also recently been selected to be a commissioned officer in the Army, which means after he completes his master’s degree in accounting and finance at MSUM in the spring, he will go back into active duty.

Perkins completed his undergraduate coursework online while still deployed. Translating his military training to his schoolwork was a challenge, but it was something that was doable.

“I would definitely say the ability to multitask and prioritize (was the most important skill),” Perkins said. “When I was going for my undergraduate degree, it was hard. I had to maintain my military obligations, as well as try to stay focused on school in countries I had never been to before. It definitely taught me a lot of discipline academic-wise.”

Praise for Veteran’s Resource Center

Anyone who has ever watched an emotional military homecoming compilation online can infer how difficult it is for some soldiers to leave their families. For Army veteran Amy Sleath, leaving wasn’t a hard thing to do, as joining the military seemed like a logical next step.

“I knew that, in high school, I didn’t want to go to college, so I needed something to do,” Sleath said. “I basically came home and pretty much said I was going to join the Army.”

Sleath was on active duty for 10 years split between two stints. Enlisting in 2001, she was a fueler for two years before leaving the service. When she returned to the Army in 2009, she was a medic stationed in a San Antonio emergency room for four years, then spent a year in Korea as a medic.

She began occupational therapy upon returning home. When that training was complete, she served at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for two years as an occupational therapy assistant.

Now, as an older-than-average student at MSUM, Sleath struggles to connect with her younger classmates. However, one place on campus where the exercise science major can find people to relate to is within the Veteran’s Resource Center.

“It’s kind of given me that community that you lose when you are off of active duty and you’re away from the military,” Sleath said. “You lose that camaraderie and the friendship and that group of people that you’ve come to know … Here, you get that from the other people that use (the center), and just having a conversation with other people that know what you’re talking about.”

Sleath is a strong advocate of the Veteran’s Resource Center, as there is a wealth of life experience that can be tapped into simply by showing up and asking questions. Those questions, however, don’t have to come from veterans alone.

“The veteran’s center is here for everyone,” Sleath said. “I really hope other people would come and use it more often. They don’t have to necessarily be veterans, but we have a lot of family members that come here using the benefits of their parents. They’re more than welcome to come in too.”

These three veterans are not singular examples. Their experiences are mirrored in former service members across MSUM and on college campuses everywhere. It is important to recognize both the sacrifices they’ve made and their continuing school efforts.

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