The area of Afghanistan where Jarvas Polk, a first lieutenant in the Minnesota National Guard, was stationed for nearly a year was mountainous and dirty. He remembers the endless rows of people selling little tchotchkes on the street and the eeriness of no vehicular traffic. The only thing it had in common with Polk’s Minnesota home was the weather; it got cold in the winter and warm in the summer.
“It was a good experience,” Polk said of his time in Afghanistan. “The best thing you never want to do again.”
Since his return to Minnesota from Afghanistan in the summer of 2012, Polk, who is 28 and a senior, is back at Winona State University (WSU) and currently the president of the Veterans Club. He also works as a representative at the Winona State Veterans Affairs Office on campus in Maxwell Hall.
“I am a big supporter of GI benefits,” Polk said. “I want to see veterans use their benefits and go to college.”
U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Winona State University first among Minnesota public universities on its inaugural list of “Best Colleges for Veterans,” and also 20th among Regional Universities in the Midwest.
“I’m really proud of that ranking,” Polk said. “It makes me feel good because I’m part of it. I’m glad people notice that we try to help other vets.”
According to the report, the 2014 list ranked 234 schools over 10 separate ranking categories. Each of the 234 institutions had to be a member of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, certified for the GI BIll, and participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. From there, the rank of each school in its respective category was based on its overall numerical rank in the Best Colleges list.
While the high ranking on the “Best Colleges for Veterans” is nice recognition, it only acknowledges that WSU offers certain federal benefits to its student veterans and current service members, and fails to take into account the daily support offered and given to veterans and active service members on campus. It's that support group of teachers, administrators, and fellow student veterans on campus that Polk believes sets WSU apart from other schools for veterans.
“I think WSU faculty really take the time to help each vet individually,” he said. “They’re always supporting the veterans and making sure everyone is taken care of, and I think that’s one of the biggest assets.”
Polk, who is an accounting major, said that because he works in the VA Office, he is able to see the interactions between administrators and student veterans first-hand. It is not uncommon to see professors working around student veterans’ schedules to accommodate them.
“Regardless of major. I work in the VA office, so I see all these administrators being understanding towards vets and military in general,” Polk said. “I remember one time when I had a drill weekend four days before finals and my teachers rearranged my finals times so I could have more study time beforehand; they didn’t have to do that.”
In addition to the support from staff, veterans at WSU will soon be receiving their own veterans-only lounge in Wabasha Hall on campus where they can go to study or relax. “We’re currently developing it and it should be operational by fall of 2014,” Polk explained. “We have a pass code on it so only veterans can get into it. There’s a lounge area and an area where people can study; it’s pretty nice.”
WSU’s supporting community of veterans
The Veterans Club at WSU is small, “between five and 10 people,” Polk said. “We’re trying to grow, but a lot of vets are non-traditional college students, so this can create a lot of barriers that other clubs might not have to face.”
Regardless of the number of members, Polk and the Veterans Club members work to make their presence known not only to their peers, but to veterans outside of the university who live in the Winona area. Recently, the club hosted a dinner at Signatures and invited 20 veterans and their significant others. They spent the night eating and talking, sharing their experiences.
“We just try to do things that are supportive of vets,” Polk said of the Veterans Club. “A lot of the people we serve are Minnesota Guard members. We have a lot of soldiers who came back to college after deployment, and we make sure that if anyone has issues we refer them to veteran health services, like counseling, in Winona or even outside — whatever they need to get in contact with the right people.”
Early registration for veterans
Polk is set to graduate this coming May with the rest of his senior class. In April, while most students will be studying for finals and working on term papers, maybe even getting in a last party or two, Polk will be focusing on school and monthly drill weekends, in addition to helping push for a piece of legislation that would allow veterans early registration at all institutions within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. He will be busy, but as Polk sees it, it’s worth his time to help his fellow student veterans to get the benefits that they deserve and ultimately should use.
“I like seeing veterans taken care of,” he said. “I really like that.”