Minnesota West Community and Technical College has been named the second most military-friendly school in the nation among small community colleges by the Military Friendly® Schools survey. Military veterans who served this country are able to serve their minds at Minnesota West under the leadership of Terry Gaalswyk and Barb Staples.

“Minnesota West has adjusted its programs over the years relative to the needs of the community it serves,” says Dr. Terry Gaalswyk, the school’s president. “Through those close community relationships, we create opportunities for veterans and their families to come live and work in southwest Minnesota.”

Minnesota West is a community college within the Minnesota State system. It operates five campuses in southwest Minnesota—Canby, Granite Falls, Jackson, Pipestone, and Worthington—as well as learning centers in Luverne and Marshall.

For more than 15 years, the Pittsburgh-based organization Military Friendly has used public data sources, proprietary data from its survey, and personal data from surveys of veterans themselves to evaluate more than 1,600 schools nationwide. Any school is eligible to participate in the survey if the school is eligible to receive federal veteran education benefits and has at least three federal veteran programs in operation and good standing. Only ten education institutions receive the Top 10 elite award within their enrollment size and type category; other awards include Gold, Silver, and Bronze. If a school meets military-friendly standards, but does not exceed them, it is designated Military Friendly with no award.

The organization says the free-of-charge survey evaluates educational institutions on their service to student veterans using six categories worth different weightings: military student support and retention (30 percent), graduation and career outcomes (30 percent), financial aid and loan repayment (12 percent), admissions and orientation (10 percent), academic policies and compliance (9 percent), and culture and commitment (9 percent). To be an award contender, schools must exceed the Military Friendly standards in each category.

For example, Minnesota West scored 100 percent when compared to the Military Friendly standard within the culture and commitment category and exceeded the standard by another 87 percent. Questions in this category focused on the availability of clubs or associations for military service members or veterans and whether there was a dedicated social space for gathering, campus/social networking opportunities, and activities to help military students integrate with non-veteran groups, to name a few.

Barb Staples, the veterans service coordinator at Minnesota West, says the school provides student veterans their own space through a veterans’ center and a veterans’ club, as well as opportunities to volunteer in their communities. “We work closely with Regional Veteran Service Officers to give veterans access to resources and ensure their veteran and military benefits are coordinated,” she says. “Most importantly, we have a certified Veterans Service Coordinator to help with all of this and work directly with veterans and their families.”

The community college recognizes that skills and talents developed during military service are a valuable resource in the classroom and for veterans’ next career moves.

Staples says that veterans can provide a significant resource to help Minnesota companies solve the state’s shrinking number of skilled employees. “They are in a different place in their lives than new, incoming students,” she says. “They are more reliable, more mature, and more ready to take on the challenges of any job out there.”

With more than 50 veterans on campus, Minnesota West’s growing ranks of student veterans are a result of intentional outreach efforts. “We have outreach people who visit veteran centers and veteran career fairs and offer our services,” Staples says.

“They are all briefed about education benefits and financial assistance available to them at Minnesota West.”

Because the college taps into the talents and unique backgrounds of veterans and augments them through its programs, student veterans are provided a conduit for their transition into the workforce.

“It’s about taking their service-oriented perspective and commitment to be leaders and bringing that to our communities in ways where our veterans can be civically engaged and help our communities grow. That’s the talent we need in southwest Minnesota,” Gaalswyk says.

Minnesota West uses regional partnerships and strong relationships with local high schools and co-ops to create programming that addresses the particular needs of veterans.

“My work with veterans focuses on their service mindset and how to align that with their future working lives,” Staples says. “Having a service mindset means they are always in service to their communities, their fellow peers in the classroom, and their families, and this absolutely makes them a great asset to any workforce.”

Gaalswyk attributes the success of Minnesota West to the students themselves as well as the dedication of people like Barb Staples. “The award we received is a reflection of that commitment. Barb has done a remarkable job organizing the college’s resources and attention to service our veterans. We would not be positioned to serve these needs without her efforts, and we will continue to align opportunities for the great men and women who have served our country.”

Featured story in the Summer 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

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