Career Planning in Afghanistan

While deployed overseas, National Guard soldier Sara Braaten set her sights on Dakota County Technical College and a future job as an event manager.

Sergeant Sara Braaten was stationed in Afghanistan for nearly a year when she decided to rethink her future. Living conditions in the field were harsh. Enemy rocket attacks posed a constant threat.

Life is short, Braaten realized, and she needed to enjoy it.

From a tent on Forward Operating Base Warrior in Ghanzi Province, a dangerous region known for concentrations of violent Taliban insurgents, she used a laptop to search the Internet for information about party and event planning.

She eventually found and e-mailed Annette Marquez, the CEO of The Perfect Occasion, an event planning service in Eagan, Minn.

Marquez couldn’t offer SGT Braaten a job, but she did recommend the Meeting and Event Management program at Dakota County Technical College.

A graduate of the program, Marquez mentioned the college’s online courses while praising Rosealee Lee, a DCTC instructor with more than 30 years of experience as an event manager. More than that, she gave Braaten a way to fast-track her career.

“When I was in Afghanistan, I had a lot of time to think,” Braaten remembers. “We lost four guys over there, and that made me really appreciate life. I had graduated with my degree in dental hygiene, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure I would enjoy it or be good at it since I had been away from it for so long.”

A native of Hankinson, a rural town with some 1,000 residents in the southeastern corner of North Dakota, Braaten joined the North Dakota Army National Guard in 1998 during her freshman year at the University of North Dakota.

After fulfilling her first six-year contract in 2004, Braaten immediately signed up for another. She recalls feeling a strong sense of duty and patriotism.

“I reenlisted knowing that my unit stood an excellent chance of getting shipped overseas,” she says.

In 2005, she graduated from UND with her bachelor’s degree in general studies. That same year she earned her A.A.S. in dental hygiene from the North Dakota College of Science. That summer, her National Guard unit was alerted and mobilized for deployment in Afghanistan.

From March 22, 2006, until March 22, 2007, Braaten functioned as a Unit Supply Specialist in southeastern Afghanistan. She served with the military police and went on MEDCAPS, the latter civil action medical missions conducted to show good will and win over the local population. She looks back on her time working with the Afghan people with tremendous fondness.

“I really believe that my service made a difference for both our countries,” she says.

Since returning stateside, she has felt an exceptionally warm welcome from the staff at DCTC.

“I contacted Rosealee Lee, and she had so much enthusiasm about her career,” Braaten says. “I met with her, and she was able to help me set up my classes. I initially thought my certificate would be in party planning, but Rosealee told me to ‘THINK BIGGER.’ With a meeting and event planning certificate, I could do so many more things.”

Braaten adds that everyone she has encountered at the college has been helpful and understanding. “The staff has made me feel more proud of being a soldier,” she says. “I am so thankful for people who appreciate what we have accomplished.”

Right now, Braaten is living in Hutchinson, Minn. She is working two jobs as a dental hygienist in the neighboring towns of Excelsior and Litchfield. She is taking classes online at DCTC. She hopes to earn her meeting and events management certificate in the near future, and eventually make her living as an event manager.

In 2007, CNN/ ranked event planner eighth on the Web site’s list of “Top 20 Jobs” for “people who want more money, more upside and more control over where they’re going.”

“Sara Braaten’s amazing success story represents the changing student demographic at DCTC,” reports Rosealee Lee. “The flexibility of our online and weekend courses allows students to easily integrate education into their work and family lives. At DCTC, we really mean it when we say, ‘We are education for employment.'”