The path that brought Jon Dennington here was anything but usual.
Dennington, his wife Rachel and their three children moved from North Carolina to Grand Forks this past summer to complete the final two years of what he hopes will be a degree in aviation management.
As a disabled veteran, he receives assistance through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) vocational rehabilitation program.
“I’m 37 years old and this will be my first degree,” Dennington said. “It’s time that I have a degree where I can provide for my family.”
In its 2010 guide, G.I. Jobs Magazine named UND one of the top “military-friendly schools” in the nation. Dennington agrees.
“UND’s veteran friendly,” he said. “I’m considered handicapped, and the campus is certainly disabled veteran friendly. And accessible.”
A veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Dennington admits that he was bitter after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
“The military was being downsized, and because I tore up my knees in the Airborne jumping out of airplanes, they decided they couldn’t use me any more,” he explained. “I didn’t want any benefits. I never pursued the GI Bill.”
Although he didn’t know it then, Dennington’s journey to North Dakota began in late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. He and his family were living in southern Arkansas. The hurricane tore the roof off the home they were in the process of buying.
Unfortunately, Arkansas didn’t qualify for federal disaster assistance. The Denningtons planned to leave their children in North Carolina with Jon’s parents while they returned to Arkansas to live in a tent and repair their home. But that plan went awry when a collision with a deer totaled their car.
“We kind of got stuck in North Carolina,” he said. “My parents made the best of it.”
At an air show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Dennington stopped at a UND booth. There, he learned about an aviation program offered in partnership with a local community college.
“I decided that was something I’d like to do,” he said. “I was no longer eligible for the GI Bill, but I was eligible for a VA vocational rehabilitation program. They paid for my tuition and my books, and also provided a living stipend buy cialis online to make it easier.”
He enrolled, started school in fall 2006, and began flight training for a degree in aviation management. In spring 2008, the Denningtons prepared to move to Grand Forks where Jon would complete the final two years of his degree.
Fate intervened. An auto accident left him in a coma for three weeks and Rachel hospitalized for six months. It would be another year before Dennington could resume work on his degree.
Throughout the ordeal, Dennington found helping hands at UND.
“Everybody who worked with me was so great,” he said. “The housing office was fantastic. They put me back up to the top of the list for this year. The admissions office jumped through hoops to get me here.”
The family arrived in Grand Forks the evening of June 26.
“Everybody is so friendly,” he said. “It’s been fantastically easy, and Grand Forks is a beautiful city.”
The Denningtons received additional assistance from UND during their transition.
“I contacted Carol Anson (in UND Veteran Services), who helped get my VA health care set up and set me up with a vocational rehab counselor in Fargo. If I have any questions, I contact her and she points me in the right direction.”
Because Rachel is in a wheelchair while convalescing from her injuries, handicapped access to the family’s on-campus apartment is essential. Within a day after Jon contacted UND housing, a ramp was installed in the parking lot.
It’s been a long and difficult journey, but Dennington is confident his decision to attend UND was the best one for him and his family.
“When I saw the UND booth at the air show, I researched it and decided that this was a great school, one of the top aviation schools in the country,” he said. “All along, I knew I was coming here.”
TO IRAQ AND BACK
From student to soldier, Corianna Kubasta has experienced some of the most stressful challenges a college student might face these days.
The help she has been receiving from fellow veterans and the Veteran Services Office are just part of UND’s commitment to being as military friendly as possible.
“I’m really lucky that there are a lot of people on campus who have been through this,” said Kubasta, 21, a native of Lidgerwood, N.D. “I call them, ask what to do, and they help me out. It’s what I hope other people coming back from military duty will experience.”
GI Jobs Magazine ranks UND in the top 15 percent of military-friendly schools in the nation, based on the results of a survey of 7,000 schools.
Just before the end of the fall semester of her sophomore year in late 2007, Kubasta left UND for deployment in Iraq as a specialist in the North Dakota Army National Guard 191st Military Police Company.
“A lot of my friends were going, so I volunteered to go with them,” she said. “My teachers were really good about it. They made sure I finished all the necessary course work for getting credit for my classes. I didn’t have to drop classes or take incompletes.”
Kubasta, a physical education and exercise science major, traded her textbooks for an assault rifle, a pistol, body armor and camouflaged fatigues. Her unit patrolled the Rusafa district in eastern Baghdad, including Sadr City, one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of Baghdad.
“We trained the Iraqi police and a few other security entities,” she said. “We were outside in Baghdad every day. It was like your adrenaline was always going. You had to watch your back and have everything correct. Your life depended on it every single day.”
“We opened schools and hospitals, and we secured areas,” she said. “We provided people with security so their kids would feel safe when they were out in the yard playing. The violence went down about 90 generic viagra online percent while we were there. It’s a really good feeling when you hear about that.”
As her tour of duty neared an end, Kubasta decided that she wanted to return to UND, but limited communications complicated the process. She managed to get in touch with Carol Anson, UND’s veteran certifying official.
“I couldn’t have done it without Carol,” Kubasta said. “I told her I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but I wanted to go back to school right away. She told me that she’d set everything up for me and got me into classes.”
Anson, who served in the U.S. Air Force at Grand Forks Air Force Base, says requests such as Kubasta’s from active-duty military are the norm for her office, which also helps students enroll in UND’s distance education programs.
“Many decide to attend UND because all veterans and all active-duty members receive the in-state resident tuition rate,” she said. “We have a student in Iraq right now taking online classes.”
Within two weeks after her final mission in Iraq, Kubasta was in Grand Forks, a few days late for the 2009 spring semester.
“Coming back was so slow-paced compared to what I was used to,” she said. “It was hard to go to school the day after I turned my rifle in.”
Not only was the climate vastly different, but she also had to readjust to college life as a civilian. Kubasta instinctively scanned crowds for trouble, even though she knew there was no reason to do so.
“I’d find myself watching my back,” she said. “I couldn’t sit in front of the classroom. I had to sit in back because I couldn’t stand having people behind me.”
Kubasta also wasn’t sure how faculty and other students would treat her if they knew she’d served in Iraq. She didn’t want to talk about it.
“The first class I had was foreign policy with Dr. Berger [Albert Berger, associate professor of history],” she said. “He was really supportive of the two veterans in the class.
“When it came to talking about post-9/11 foreign policy, he was really cool about asking us our opinions on what Iraq was like compared to what the textbook said. He was really respectful of us.”
The reception she received in a course on international human rights was similar.
“It was constructive discussion, and it was a very good learning environment for everyone in the room,” she said. “It definitely made my first semester back a whole lot better.”
And when people learned Kubasta was a veteran of the war in Iraq?
“They told me it was awesome that I’d helped people in another country,” she said.
Anson and her staff assist approximately 700 students on campus who identify themselves as veterans.
“We process education benefits for National Guard, dependents of disabled veterans and active-duty members who are using the GI Bill,” she said. “We also process enrollment for the new post-9/11 GI Bill for students who served on active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, and for veterans using the GI Bill under the Montgomery GI Bill. We have students using VA (Veterans Affairs) vocational rehabilitation.”
Whether it’s providing in-state tuition to all veterans, creating a Facebook page for them, helping them find classrooms or making sure they enroll in the programs that provide the most benefits, it’s no accident that UND is considered one of the nation’s most military-friendly schools.
“We have a veterans advisory group that gets together each semester to come up with things we can do to make veterans feel more welcome,” Anson said.
As Kubasta can attest, it’s well worth the effort.