TRAVERSE CITY — Since the script has flipped from soldier to student, so has the service.
Military Times magazine ranked Northwestern Michigan College the second-best two-year college for veterans in its Best for Vets list for 2019. NMC moved up one spot from the 2017 list.
The community college has implemented a series of initiatives over the last several years for its students who are veterans. Scott Herzberg, NMC's Point of Contact for Military and Veterans Services as well as an adviser, said the college's efforts are just a series of steps to repay a debt that can never be repaid.
"There's very much that you served us, now we're going to serve you mentality," Herzberg said. "There's definitely a culture of support."
Herzberg knows that the best system to veterans is to spend time with the same.
"Five percent of our student body has some pretty extraordinary experiences that 99.8 percent of the nation's population can't even begin to fathom," he said.
That's why a new veteran’s lounge was so important.
The college has had a space for veterans to gather since the spring of 2013, but a renovation of West Hall forced it to find a new home. The new lounge in the Osterlin Library is a sanctuary filled with donated items including a comfortable couch in front of a 60-inch television, several tables, a refrigerator, microwave and "an unlimited supply of coffee," Herzberg said.
Brandon Corbin, a 35-year-old NMC sophomore who served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan among a 13-year military career, appreciates having this haven on campus.
"It gives us our own space away with other (like) mindsets; this is a collective group," said the father of four on a path to a degree in social work. "To just be able to be yourself the way you've been the last umpteen years. It's definitely a different culture being in (the military) versus being out.
"It's a good spot to be able to come in here and talk to people that otherwise you would not have known."
The lounge features a textbook lending library for veterans. On a Wednesday morning, a non-veteran student popped in to drop off a textbook for a classmate that is, knowing he would need it next semester.
Offering a communal spot for veterans is one of the visible ways that NMC welcomes veterans.
The school has veteran-specific applications, orientation and campus tours. There is an active chapter of the Student Veterans of America and professional development opportunities where veterans advise faculty and staff about ways to ease what can be an inconvenience for some, a major transition for others.
Service dogs are even awarded their own diplomas and red, white and blue honor cords at graduation.
Luke Clark and his service dog, Bailee, earned their NMC diplomas in 2017. Now pursuing a degree in social work from Ferris State through the University Center, the 2008 graduate of Elk Rapids High School arrived at NMC in 2012 after serving three years and four months in the Army.
Clark, who was the SVA president during his time at NMC, said someone in admissions saw he was a veteran and facilitated a "whirlwind" process when he started. But then the support changed when the semester began.
"There's a thousand other people in the hallways walking different directions," said Clark, 29, who said NMC was ranked 64th when he started. "I'm one of the oldest people there. It's just super confusing and almost scary trying to get used to the number of people. In the military, if there are that many people somewhere, they're walking in formation."
Clark and Corbin said NMC, the Traverse City community and several area agencies have helped make the transition from service to student as smooth as possible.
Clark said having veterans on campus as NMC students is a positive situation for all. He added it even makes sense financially since the GI Bill has the government making payments directly to the college.
"You've got all these people coming out of the military that have all these job skills already, that have those core values instilled upon them from the military service," Clark said. "Why would we not want them to be here at the college?
"They fought for our country, why would you not want them here?"
Clark wants to see NMC make it to the top of Best for Vets list.
"What can NMC do to be No. 1?" Clark asked. "I, of course, care about that because I went there, I know a lot of the veterans that are there and I want veterans for generations to have a place to go to get educated where they can not feel segregated, objectified or anything.
"They can all feel the camaraderie they had when they were in the military, but they can feel it at a college and get a good education."
While Herzberg would also like to see NMC move up to No. 1, his focus is on a different one.
"My goal is to take care of the men and women in front of me," Herzberg said.
Best 2-year colleges for veterans
School City Overall fall 2017 enrollment Military, veteran 2017 fall
1. Central CC Grand Island, Nebraska 6,082 122
2. Northwestern Michigan College Traverse City 4,271* 252*
3. Tarrant Co. Trinity River Fort Worth, Texas 7,106 436
4. Pierce College Lakewood, Washington 16,134* 2,329*
5. Tidewater CC Norfolk, Virginia 22,776 3,450
6. Clackamas CC Oregon City, Oregon 20,567 592
7. Palm Beach State College Lake Worth, Florida 30,052 671
8. San Jacinto College Pasadena, Texas 42,202# 1,189#
9. Pikes Peak CC Colorado Springs, Colorado 18,604* 2,932*
10. Southwest Virginia CC Richlands, Virginia 2,304 51
* Based on 12-month unduplicated headcount for 2017-18
# Fall 2016 data
Source: Military Times magazine