Just two months ago, Nicholas Beattie was on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Anaconda native was a Highlands College freshman, doing what freshman college students are often doing: making sure he was where he was supposed to be. He was. He was in the Montana Tech Student Center’s Digger Den, waiting for the student veteran orientation program to begin.
Asked why he came, Beattie says, “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to stop by.”
That’s a sentiment fellow veteran and fellow student Frank Barreto would heartily agree with. A 53-year-old Army veteran from Colstrip, Barreto is entering his final year at Montana Tech, and he says the services and opportunities available to veterans at the university have been “fantastic” as he has navigated his return to school.
Those services and opportunities include access to a veterans’ lounge in the Student Center, personalized tutoring opportunities, assistance with career planning as well as help navigating military, Department of Veterans Affairs and university bureaucracies. But for Barreto, one of the most important aspects of his time at Tech has been personal attention he has received inside and outside the classroom.
“I found that it was easier for me to come back to school, because [there are] small groups and the attention is pretty much one-to-one,” Barreto says. “The teachers are very accommodating. And Janet is very good at what she does. If you have any problems whatsoever with academics, she will find an answer for you.”
Janet is Janet Friesz, Montana Tech’s supervisor of enrollment services and a school certifying official, a position that authorizes her to complete the paperwork necessary for veterans to receive educational benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“So I’m sort of the first contact for the veteran or the military member coming back and just wanting to use their veteran’s benefits,” Friesz explains.
According to Friesz, between 115 and 120 veterans are currently enrolled at Montana Tech and Highlands College. And she takes very seriously the job of ensuring those veterans succeed on campus.
“Sometimes it takes a while for them to trust the system and for them to trust me, because of that transition [from military life],” Friesz says. “They’re nontraditional. They’ve got families. They’ve been through a lot of things that maybe not your typical student would go through. So they’re not ready to trust just yet. And that’s why I put in that extra effort, because it’s like, ‘I’m here for you. What can I do to help you?’”
Friesz says one way she helps is by trying to break down the often daunting complexity of college into the kind of step-by-step process that is familiar to veterans from military life.
“I make sure I have a lot of steps for them to follow,” Friesz says, “and hopefully crossing those things off helps them know where they’re at in the process.”
On this Tuesday afternoon, the next step in the process is starting the student veterans’ orientation.
Though Friesz only counts four veterans in the audience — only two of whom are new to campus — there are nearly a dozen presenters on deck. Over the next half hour or so, they tell the small audience about tutoring opportunities, about accessing their VA benefits, about counselling services, about the priority they get registering for classes, and about the assistance that is available when they are ready to polish their resumes and start applying for jobs. Janna Sherrill, of Xsports4vets, even implores them to take advantage of opportunities her group offers for veterans to go rock climbing and whitewater rafting, at no charge.
For Eric Verploegen, an Army veteran from Havre who recently arrived in Butte to pursue a metallurgical engineering degree at Tech, the many presentations make him “feel good about choosing to come here.”
And before Friesz ends the orientation, she reminds the four veteran students in the audience of one more opportunity available to them: a drawing for a Tech sweatshirt. “Your chances are really good,” she says.