Dakota County Technical College student Nelson Newbill Jr. has been an active user of the campus' Military and Veterans Service Center since he started taking classes in 2015, despite the fact that the location and size limited its usefulness for some students.
Newbill said the old location for the veterans center was crowded, which could sometimes make it difficult to use. But even then, having a space specifically for veterans was helpful
"Once I started going, it was more and more that I found myself there because I was around other veterans and it was a nice quiet place on campus to get work done," said Newbill Jr. "For the most part, it was a place you could hear other veterans' stories and relate and talk about non-civilian stuff - it was just a good atmosphere."
As the number of veterans enrolled at Dakota County Technical College has continued to grow, campus leaders are working to make sure these students have the resources and space they need to be successful. Last month, the campus celebrated the opening of an expanded Military and Veterans Service Center that was furnished thanks to donations from military and veterans organizations from throughout Dakota County.
DCTC has had a veterans center on campus for several years, but the location was inconvenient and it didn't offer enough space for students to meet and work effectively. Last summer, an opportunity arose to move the center across campus, into a more central space that could more effectively meet the needs of the campus' growing veteran population.
"It's now in a space that's larger, that can be better utilized due to a more central location on campus," said Michelle Krenzke, director of the DCTC Foundation.
The move also meant that Kathy Bachman, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs higher education regional coordinator, could have an office within the veterans center, making her more accessible to students on campus, said Amy Eppen, DCTC Foundation assistant director.
"It's great to have her there readily available if any concerns arise," said Eppen.
Bachman assists veterans at multiple campuses in the region with identifying which VA education benefit is the best fit, assists with the application and appeal process for those benefits, and provides updated information to students about benefits from the National Guard and Reserve. She also serves as a liaison between students and the administration to help develop veteran-friendly practices on campus.
The challenge in moving was finding a way to furnish the space in a way that would make it both inviting and useful for veterans on campus.
"We had the space from the college, but we didn't have a lot of the infrastructure in terms of having nice couches, or a TV, or computer lab space, a printer, that sort of thing, for veterans to come and have it be a comfortable gathering space," said Krenzke.
Campus and DCTC Foundation staff reached out to supporters in the community to raise money for the project. Seventeen individuals or groups donated for the project, including the Hastings VFW, American Legion and United Way; Hastings Automotive; Hastings Chrysler Center; Dean Markuson, who also heads the Hastings Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Network; and Gahnz Furniture.
In total, the DCTC Foundation helped raise about $7,000 for the project, which was used to purchase furniture, computer stations, printers, a television, refrigerator and food. Some of those donations, along with ongoing support, will also be used to provide scholarships for veterans at DCTC.
"Some of those groups are interested in continuing to invest because we do serve quite a few veterans on campus," said Krenzke.
Those amenities and the visibility of the new location have had a positive impact on visitors and use at the veterans center, Krenzke said.
From September to December 2015, the old center had just 340 visits. Between September and December 2016, after the move to the new location, the total number of visitors reached 1,032.
Visitors include veterans, currently military members and family members coming to campus.
Krenzke said those visitor totals are comparable to larger colleges in the south metro, like Normandale Community College and Inver Hills Community College.
As a result, those working in the veterans center believe the new space will help reduce the percentage of veteran students on academic warning, increase the number of veterans who continue to a second year of classes and increase the total number of veterans enrolled at DCTC.
This year, there are approximately 200 veterans enrolled who are taking advantage of education benefits from the Veterans Administration. Another 20 to 30 military dependents are also enrolled on campus.
Newbill Jr. said he was "ecstatic" to see the center move into a new location, both because it was located closer to his classes and because it provides better resources for veterans. It also allows veterans space to utilize the programs and resources available to veterans, he said.
"Now, it's more or less a veterans lounge," said Newbill Jr. "We were always getting the word about things that were going on for veterans, but there wasn't enough space to get it done."