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Veterans finding their place at Augustana

July  06, 2012

Military veterans, from left, Jeff Siirila, J.D. Engelhardt and Joshua Brown attend Augustana as a result of the Yellow Ribbon Program. (Augustana Photo Bureau: Marla Alvarado-Neuerberg)

Three military veterans who thought their only path to a college diploma would involve years of night and weekend classes are on track to earn a degree in four years at Augustana College, thanks to the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Yellow Ribbon was established by the Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. The shared financial assistance program allows U.S. colleges, universities and other degree-granting schools to partner with the Veterans Administration (VA) to pay for tuition and fee expenses that exceed the tuition and fee amounts payable under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Through the program, the VA matches Augustana's financial assistance contribution for qualifying veterans. It has made the Augustana experience affordable for Gulf War Army veterans Joshua Brown and John Daniel (JD) Engelhardt, both juniors, and Navy veteran Jeff Siirila, a senior.

In 2010,  Sgt. Brown led a four-man satellite communications team attached to the 101st Airborne Division in the Saladin Province in Iraq. Brown estimates he completed more than 50 combat patrols.

Engelhardt deployed to Iraq's Diyala province in 2007 as a combat engineer with the 1st Armored Division. Like Brown, Engelhardt and his three-man team spent months patrolling and clearing improvised explosive devices from roads and alleys.

Before they joined the Army, both men knew they wanted to go to college.

Engelhard visited Augustana in 2006 after he had enlisted as a high school senior. Engelhardt's father had attended Texas Lutheran University in Sequin, Texas, and was sure his son would benefit, as he had, from a Lutheran liberal arts college experience. Not sure yet what he wants to do after graduation, Engelhardt is enjoying life as a full-time student and member of both the Augustana debate and crew teams. He is a communication studies and political science major.

Brown first heard about Augustana from his school guidance counselor in his hometown of Topeka. Even then, he knew he wanted to become a dentist. In addition to his classes at Augustana, Brown serves as a dental technician for the U.S. Army Reserve in Hobart, Ind., one weekend a month, and he works alongside dentists and oral surgeons for two weeks in the summer at an Army dental clinic. He is a biology major and member of Rho Nu Delta fraternity. He hopes to work as an Army dentist.

Siirila also followed a less traditional path to life as a student at Augustana. After graduating from Rock Island High School in 1999, Siirila followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Navy. After basic training, he became an aircraft mechanic and was assigned to work on some of the Navy's most sophisticated electronic warfare jets. After he completed his active service obligation, Siirila worked for Caterpillar and briefly returned to the Navy Reserves before returning to manufacturing. When work as a machinist dried up with the recession in 2008, he used GI Bill benefits to pursue his dream of leaving behind the inner workings of machines for the inner workings of the mind. A psychology major, Siirila plans to pursue a career in the mental health field after he graduates next spring.

A similarity between the military and Augustana, Siirila said, is that "after boot camp, everyone attends a school where we all live in barracks separated by female/male, and you will have two to three people in a room." A difference, he added, is that the military pays you while you're in school.

What advice do these Augustana's students have for veterans who will follow?

"Don't expect your 18- and 19-year-old peers to understand the world you came from," Brown said. "That's a world only other vets really get, but do try and get involved as much as you can in the clubs, activities and co-curricular experiences that make the liberal arts college experience special."

To learn more about the Yellow Ribbon program, contact Augustana's financial assistance specialists at (800) 798-8100 x7207, (309) 794-7207 or financialassistance@augustana.edu.