Jessica Woratschka had a simple reason for dropping out of Minnesota State University, Mankato: As the middle of three siblings who grew up with a single mom in St. James, Minn., she couldn't afford school. So she got a job at a Mankato hotel, but still she dreamed of becoming a third- or fourth-grade teacher.
So in 2017, she joined the Minnesota National Guard: basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, then advanced individual training at Fort Lee in Virginia to be a mechanic. When her unit in the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division was preparing in 2018 to leave for a yearlong deployment in Kuwait that included some 650 Minnesota National Guard soldiers, she kept hearing from friends how hard it would be to go back to college after being out for so long.
"I said, 'I am going to go back to school no matter how hard it is,' " Woratschka said.
During her deployment, she took six online courses through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, for a total of 19 credits. When her colleagues went to lunch on base, she ate tuna fish and studied. Instead of playing video games in the barracks, she hit the books for a couple hours a night.
This semester she's back at school in Mankato — still a corporal in the Minnesota National Guard, now working at Buffalo Wild Wings — as a 23-year-old college sophomore, pursuing her degree in elementary education.
It's all part of an effort by the 30 colleges and seven universities in the Minnesota State system to support roughly 9,300 veterans and service members who are taking college courses. Next weekend, the Post 1 Reintegration event will be held in Minneapolis, where the recently deployed soldiers will continue taking advantage of community resources on topics like education, financial planning and building healthy marriages and relationships.
Veterans' resource centers at each college and university help current or former service members and their families with emotional support and navigating bureaucratic waters. The centers help deployed soldiers take college courses — Woratschka's online classes were from four separate schools — or see if college-level credits can be awarded for military training or deployments.
Over the past decade, more than 200,000 college credits have been awarded to military service members in the state, saving them $40 million in tuition fees, according to the Minnesota State system.
A big part of the job is easing the transition from deployment to college life.
"Even though they're very close in age to an 18- or 19-year-old, they're coming from a very structured environment," said Gina Sobania, director of military, veteran and adult learner services for Minnesota State. "They see a professor in a hierarchy. Other students don't necessarily have that, and that can be disheartening for them. They're seeing students doing things in class, on the phones, chatting with their seat partners. They're coming from an environment where it's hierarchy, rank, chain of command — and the professor is your chain of command."
As someone who grew up riding and repairing dirt bikes, Woratschka was not too daunted by being one of the few women in her maintenance unit in Kuwait.
What was daunting was coming back to a less structured life. Instead of having an 8-to-5 shift in the maintenance shop, Woratschka's classes and work shifts are staggered. And dealing with fellow students who don't follow professors' instructions can be frustrating to her.
"A few of my other battle buddies have said the same," she said. "You can't handle it. The discipline of the military vs. real-world civilians, it can be tough."