Giant check = best surprise ever

Sanford Health wows two UND student veterans by handing them major scholarship awards

Brandt Bennett (center) was ‘shocked and surprised’ to be handed a check for $5,000 from Sanford Health. The Sanford Health Military and Veteran Scholarship was presented to Bennett by Jessica Reule, UND Veteran and Military Services coordinator; Paul Weckman, director of Veterans and Military Affairs at Sanford Health; and Paul Snyder, director of UND’s UAS program. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Walking into Robin Hall at the University of North Dakota, Brandt Bennett figured the proctor for his final exam was telling the truth — that his testing location had been changed at the last minute.

Then upon entering the conference room, Bennett knew something was afoot.  Usually there aren’t other people in the room for a UAS Operator Certification test; but Paul Weckman, director of Veterans and Military Affairs at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D., introduced himself to a bewildered Bennett.

“Shock and surprise,” said Bennett of his initial reaction. For Weckman had driven from Sioux Falls not just to meet the exemplary student, but to present him with a big check — literally and figuratively.

That’s when Bennett, a U.S. Army veteran of 13 years, saw the poster-sized document and realized he’d been selected for a $5,000 Sanford Health Military and Veteran Scholarship.

“I thought they had announced the winners back in October, so when that came and went, I assumed I wasn’t selected,” said Bennett. “I’m surprised and grateful.”

Paul Weckman of Sanford Health makes a point of personally presenting awardees with their ceremonial checks. After having serving in the U.S. Navy for 26 years, Weckman said it’s his calling to recognize the service of high-achieving student veterans. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

UND standouts

Weckman, a retired U.S. Navy Captain of 26 years’ service, arrived on campus impressed with the University of North Dakota. For the substantial scholarship, any veteran, Guard/Reserve or active-duty service member and full-time student can apply from anywhere in the country.

Two of this year’s four scholarship recipients are attending UND.

“That’s saying something good,” Weckman remarked.

Third-year UND medical student Matthew Gerenz received the award in late November. Weckman made a similar journey to Bismarck’s UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences campus to present the award to Gerenz, who has been with UND since beginning his undergraduate career in January 2011. Gerenz joined the Army National Guard at age 17 and has 11 years of service as a combat medic.

Flanked by Associate Dean Dr. A. Michael Booth (left) and Associate Professor Dr. Todd Schaffer, Weckman and Gerenz posed with a check from the Sanford Health Military and Veteran Scholarship in late November. Image courtesy of Paul Weckman/Sanford Health.

The Sanford administrator makes a point to present the checks during classes, as the students are surrounded by their peers.

“The difference of mailing an award or emailing someone compared to meeting them face-to-face is unbelievable,” Weckman said. “These men and women are called to service and sacrifice a lot of their freedoms for ours. It doesn’t bother me to drive six hours to present a personal award for such great accomplishments. It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”

Scheduling conflicts and Bennett’s rescheduling of his final exam created a quieter occasion, but it didn’t change Bennett’s expression of gratitude.

“I feel fortunate to have earned and qualified for this,” he said. “This is a fantastic, great opportunity.”

Also there to congratulate Bennett were Paul Snyder, director of UND’s UAS program, and Jessica Reule, UND Veteran and Military Services coordinator.

Bennett said it was an email sent by Reule, regarding the scholarship, that brought the opportunity to his attention in the first place.

“Having two winners from UND not only represents the hard work that our student veterans accomplish, but it also shows the caliber of student that UND teaches and mentors,” said Reule. “The scholarship is very competitive, but we know that our student veterans are amazing to work with, and they consistently perform well in their courses.”

Despite the pressure of an imminent final exam, Bennett was all smiles after receiving his award. Weckman referred to the Army veteran as a “rock star” regarding his service record and outstanding academics. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Recognizing high achievement

Bennett described his service in humbler terms, but Weckman had the facts on-hand as he read off the accolades qualifying Bennett for the substantial award.

“He was in the Army until last year,” Weckman said. “He deployed to Afghanistan and earned multiple Army achievement medals: two campaign medals, two campaign stars and a combat badge. He contributed to the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, working with children, and did extremely well in his service.”

Among other achievements, Bennett became an Eagle Scout at age 14 and, at UND, he is sporting a 4.0 GPA across three majors in his first three semesters. He came to UND in fall 2018 after his time in active duty ended.

As a sergeant, Bennett worked in Blackhawk helicopter maintenance.

While stationed in Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo., Bennett had a platoon leader and company commander who had both attended UND through the Army ROTC helicopter training program. Then, near the end of his service, a friend was looking into UND’s UAS program.

“I thought [the UAS degree] sounded great. I looked into it, applied, and here we are,” Bennett said.

Majoring in UAS, Chinese studies and data science, Bennett’s short-term goal is to fly drones for government contractors. Along the way, he hopes to incorporate what he picks up in his data studies and Chinese language skills. Drones generate a lot of information, so being able to understand how pilots approach that information is valuable, he said.

“The scholarship award is huge,” Bennett said. “I have flight courses to pay for. I’m also planning on studying abroad in Taiwan, next year. Being able to cover those things has me excited and thankful.”

Help where they need it

Weckman noted that the $5,000 isn’t restricted to specific uses by Sanford Health. After all, the average veteran is in his or her mid-20s or 30s and starting a family by the time they’re finished in the service, he said.

“They’re most likely independent, have a budget, and they aren’t coming into college at 19,” Weckman said. “They’re a different student. This scholarship goes to the individual because we know this will help them where they need it. They’re mature enough to know what to do with it.”

Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator at UND, recognized the award from Sanford Health for its rigorous selection process, noting all applicants were assessed for their service “in and out of uniform, commitment to their academic pursuits, ability to bring people together to achieve creative solutions and active efforts to make the world a better place.”

“The recognition of both Brandt and Matthew’s dedication to public service is well-deserved and spotlights the amazing scholarship opportunities available to students dedicated to making a difference,” Chu said. “Thank you, Sanford Health, for bringing attention to our exceptional students.”