After Milwaukee native Elizabeth Dykstra graduated from high school, she went to a big university – so big, it was overwhelming – and she was lost.
“I wasn’t successful at that school,” Dykstra explained. “It was my father, who was deployed during Desert Storm, who suggested: ‘Why don’t you try the military? Do a quick tour with the Reserves or National Guard?’ The next thing I know, I’m going full-blown active duty in the Army. It became something I very much enjoyed, but when my daughter was born, I knew it was time to be done.”
After serving as a military paralegal for more than six years, Dykstra, at 26, wasn’t sure where her career was headed when she and her family moved to Channahon in 2010. She knew she wanted to help people, and with an interest in math and science, thought about nursing. With encouragement from her aunt who is a nurse, and her husband, she chose to go back to school, this time at JJC.
JJC was close to her new home and affordable, but it also wasn’t as intimidating as she had found the big university atmosphere to be.
“I needed a small step to get myself back into education, and JJC was the right fit,” Dykstra added.
Unsure of where to start at a brand new school, Dykstra went to a JJC’s Veterans Alliance Club meeting.
She realized that this was one of the best decisions she could have ever made. There were people like her in this club – other veterans who were also students who became her mentors. She had friends to talk to about her experiences, both past and present, and a safe place to go that ultimately helped her transition from the military to civilian life.
“When I first started at JJC, we were only home from Iraq a little over a year. I remember once, the fire alarm went off and I took cover under my desk,” she said. “There were little things like that. Having someone to talk to at the Veterans Alliance about those things was great.”
As she got more settled at JJC, Dykstra became a secretary with the Veterans Alliance Club, and soon became a mentor, for new students who were also veterans – just like her.
“I remember how amazing it was for me to see veterans at the end of their time at JJC, and then get tips from them,” she said. “Now that I’m able to do the same for other veterans, it keeps me grounded and reminds me how far I’ve come. I feel really good when I’m able to help one of those, newer, younger students – especially mentoring the younger leadership.”
Thanks to the JJC Veterans Alliance, Dykstra said she felt a little bit of confidence start to shine through. With help from other JJC professors and her will to do well, JJC is where Dykstra’s confidence blossomed.
One of Dykstra’s favorite memories at JJC came right after her first semester.
“My grades came out and I’d gotten all As! It was so overwhelming to know that I was in an environment where I could succeed,” she said. “That gave me the confidence and the boost I needed to say, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”
Dykstra will graduate with her associate degree in nursing this May. She wants to find a nursing job while continuing her education with online classes at Northern Illinois University. She has dreams of becoming an ER nurse – probably because of the fast paced environment she grew to love working in the military.
“I just loved my time during JJC’s clinical in the ER, and the unpredictability of it. I think it’s because of my time in the military and in Iraq. You don’t know what’s happening in two seconds, and you have to deal with it,” she said. “Part of me really enjoyed that and working in the ER fulfills that adrenaline rush that I really enjoy. I work best when I don’t have time to analyze things.”
As president of JJC’s Nursing Student Association (NSA), Dykstra would definitely encourage anyone interested in nursing to attend JJC.
“The caliber of education here is amazing, and the faculty go out of their way to help you when you’re struggling,” she said. “The quality of the staff is outstanding and everyone in the nursing department – there is so much support for the nursing student at JJC.”
On commencement day, May 16, Dykstra will be recognized as the 2014 recipient of the Student Service Recognition Award.
“I am extremely honored and humbled by this award,” Dykstra said. “I am honored in knowing that many of the faculty and staff at JJC see me as a leader and going out of my way to help people – because I don’t feel like I went out of my way to do so. It just comes naturally to me. And to be recognized to be doing what I felt I should do anyway is quite amazing.”
For more information at the JJC Veterans Alliance, visit http://www.jjc.edu/student-life/clubs-orgs/veterans-alliance/Pages/default.aspx.
For more information about the JJC Nursing, Allied Health and Emergency Services Department, visit http://www.jjc.edu/academics/divisions/nursing-allied-health/Pages/default.aspx.