Burhans overcomes obstacles to become a college grad

By Michael Linnell
University Communications Director

MINOT, N.D. – Over the past year and a half, James Burhans changed his mindset about going to college.

Burhans originally signed up to take classes at Minot State University out of necessity. The veteran had lost his job at Harley-Davidson and, according to him, “his PTSD was making things worse.”

In February of 2016, he spent time at the Hot Springs VA Medical Center in South Dakota where, in therapy activities, learned he was interested in leather working.

“The program is there to see if you are interested in something,” Burhans said. “I found out I was very interested in it and decided to go to college to learn to write a business plan.

“I found out about a program I could use, vocational rehabilitation, where they basically paid me to go to school. It was a no-brainer. I hate to say it, but I started because of money. I looked at it as it was my job. Up until the last two or three semesters, I couldn’t believe I was here. In the last year, it was, ok, I’m too close to quit.”

Burhans, however, persevered with the help of the Minot State Military Resource Center, the MSU Power Center, and counseling, graduating in December.

“Just walking through campus was a nightmare for me — the crowded hallways, bumping into people, people bumping into me, you can’t completely avoid that and those are huge triggers for me,” he said. “Just being able to go to the (Military Resource Center) and talking with Andy (Andy Heitkamp, Military Resource Center director) and Paul (Paul Stroklund, academic coach), and my adjustment counselor at the Veterans Center; really helped.”

Heitkamp stressed the Military Resource Center operates with the expectation that individuals will graduate through the Department of Education’s Eight Keys to Veterans Success and the Department of Defense’s Principles of Excellence.

“With that being said, military training stresses teamwork and selflessness to accomplish the mission — zero fail,” Heitkamp said. “So the journey, from identification (the individual reaching out), to discussion about the process, to continued guidance along the path, to assistance and referral with services to address hurdles, and occasional setbacks, eventually result in the completion of their academic goal.

“For me personally, it is extremely cathartic. That is rarely shared or displayed, as again military training does not value individual public display, or individual importance, but instead emphasizes only the group’s successful accomplishment of the mission.”  

The journey might seem bumpy to outsiders, but for Burhans, there have been plenty of instances far more difficult than finishing his degree. His first few days on campus, in fact, might have been the most difficult at MSU. Burhans was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident after the first day of classes, missing the next two weeks completely and spending the subsequent two months in a wheelchair.

“I had both of my knees reconstructed and both are going to need to be replaced someday,” he said. “That was a difficult time as it was extremely difficult to get around in the snow and cold in a wheelchair, but I have a photo of me in the Homecoming float in the wheelchair and I still ride motorcycles, so it must not have been too bad.”

That type of mantra was picked up during his counseling sessions at the Veterans Center and through the rigors of being in combat.

“A quote that helped me out from my counselor — when I first started college, I was going once a week, now it’s every other week — but when I first started school and was talking about being stressed and how difficult it is, something she said that really helped was, ‘I can put up with anything for a year,’” Burhans said. “After being deployed, I can put up with anything for a year.”

Stroklund believes his service helps him relate to students such as Burhans.

“I think there is a strong connection with having a fellow combat vet to work with and talk to,” Stroklund said.

Both Stroklund and Heitkamp, along with their respective areas, help Burhans and others deal with issues from financial, to classroom, to personal.

“Andy is a great source of information and anytime I had an issue with a teacher or something, I would go to Paul,” Burhans said. “That was great because I’ve been working on issues since I got home in 2007. I knew it would be better for Paul to handle it with tact instead of me going tactical.”

“We are basically a sounding board for benefited individuals with the ability to provide connections to all of the campus, community, and federal Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs services available to the individual,” Heitkamp said. “Depending on the situation, we just listen; share personal experiences; provide warm handoffs to campus, community, and federal agency service providers including local military service organizations. Our goal is to increase awareness of military educational benefits through social media, print, and word of mouth advertising that includes collaborative events with regional military service providers an ultimately, assisting individuals seeking access to them!”

Burhans, who is originally from Illinois and was stationed at Minot Air Force Base right out of high school, believes individual professors should utilize the Military Resource Center as they work with veteran students.

“My first couple of weeks here, I had some meetings with professors and told them I was a combat vet, and I had a list of issues,” he said. “None of them referred me to Andy or the center. If a teacher sees a veteran struggling in class, reach out. If it wasn’t for the Power Center, I would never have graduated. I didn’t always get the greatest tutors, but the attempt was made, and it obviously worked.”

Burhans finished with a degree in business management and a certificate in entrepreneurship. He credits a website design class for giving him a head start on forming an online business and the entrepreneurship classwork for formulating the basis of his business plan. He plans to start with custom leather and eventually branch into custom metal.

“I’ve worked out my webpage, I just have to get it actually online,” he said. “I figured if I’m going to do all of this, I might as well take classes for things I’m going to actually use. I will keep using resources on campus, professors like Dean Frantsvog (accounting and finance), to get my business started.

“My final project for entrepreneurship was doing the actual business plan. I will need to go through it and refine it, it was a group project so I will have to change some of it, but it is basically done. Entrepreneurship is really what I wanted to do. Halfway through I found out about it, but they told me I couldn’t double major. So, I went with the certificate to stick it to them. I don’t like people telling me what to do.”

There wasn’t much decision making when choosing Minot State. In fact, Burhans wasn’t going to relocate for school as he has children in Minot and he wasn’t interested in taking classes online. But MSU’s smaller class sizes and the one-one-one help he received at the Power Center and the Military Resource Center became an advantage for him.

As was being an older-than-average student.

“It was a benefit,” he said of being older. “I really don’t think I studied that hard for anything because my life experiences carried me through — for the most part with solid Bs and As,” Burhans said. “I would have lost my line on a bigger campus.”

That personal touch continued right up to graduation.

“It was great what Paul and Andy did for me as far as a little graduation ceremony here,” he said. “Everybody wants me to walk in May and that’s not going to happen — sit me down with a couple hundred students behind me, no thank you. I don’t think this will fully set in until I have that certificate in my hand.

“But, Paul and Andy and everyone from Power came over for a nice little ceremony. It couldn’t have been any better.”

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 12/31/20   

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