Marisol Menken felt confident as a U.S. Army soldier in Iraq.

As a health care specialist in an emergency room in Mosul during the Iraq War, she always encountered challenging new scenarios.

But she knew her job. She knew the rules. She knew how to communicate.

When she left active duty to get her bachelor’s degree and seek other civilian opportunities, she struggled.

“In uniform, I have the confidence I need to do what I am supposed to do,” said Menken, 28. “I don’t feel like I need to be anyone but myself.

“But when it came to the corporate setting, I felt out of place,” she said. “I had a lack of confidence. It was difficult because I felt I had to change who I am.”

Thanks to the Spectrum Health Veteran Explorer Program, she learned she can be herself and succeed out of uniform.

Exploring opportunities

Menken joined the Veteran Explorer Program in 2015.

The program is designed to provide unemployed and underemployed veterans with job skills through paid internships, career development workshops, networking and other support. The internships include three 10-week job rotations.

“It’s a great program because it allowed me to ease my way into the corporate setting and learn new skills, as well as sharpen the ones I had,” Menken said. “But it also allowed me to get that confidence back.”

In April she accepted a full-time job as an administrative assistant in Spectrum Health’s nurse triage center. She also serves as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Since its creation in March 2013, 44 veterans have completed the Veteran Explorer Program.

Spectrum Health later hired many of these veterans for full-time jobs in facilities, human resources, payer relations, information services, emergency medicine, financial counseling, security, nursing and patient experience.

This year’s program kicks off in November, said Jason Jones, manager of talent selection in the diversity and university recruitment department at Spectrum Health Human Resources.

“We have the program participants rotate through roles to see if we can help them find a corporate home,” Jones said. “We are looking for people who want to be successful.”

Menken was the perfect fit.

A graduate of Fennville High School, she enlisted in the National Guard at age 17 as a high school junior. At age 19 she entered active duty as a U.S. Army medical specialist.

In January 2010 she deployed to Iraq for a year.

“It was interesting,” she said of her emergency room work in Mosul. “I gained a lot of experience with trauma and emergency medicine.”

She earned a promotion to sergeant after her deployment, serving in Fort Hood, Texas, until she left active duty in December 2011 so she could return to West Michigan to earn her bachelor’s degree and seek new experiences.

Menken now lives in Holland, Michigan, with her husband and 3-year-old son.

She graduated in December from Grand Valley State University with a degree in liberal studies. That’s where she learned about the Veterans Explorer Program.

“I loved emergency medicine. I loved being a medic,” Menken said. “It was a guaranteed career. But I wanted to try something different. I wanted to try my hand at applying some of the leadership skills I had learned in the military.”

In her first rotation with the program, she worked as an administrative assistant in nursing administration at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.

She then moved to a rotation in Spectrum Health’s Veteran Support Services in Grand Rapids.

She felt at home there, working in a program created by fellow Veteran Explorer graduate Danielle Montag.

Montag saw a need to support veteran patients, so she developed a plan for the program and the full-time job she now holds.

The program works to improve veterans’ experiences during their stay at Spectrum Health, providing recognition for their service—including an American flag displayed in their hospital room—and advocacy, if needed.

Menken’s job entailed interviewing veterans to determine their needs as patients.

“It was nice to make a difference in their day by recognizing they were in the military and reminiscing with them,” she said.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a full-time job available with the program when she finished her rotation. But her supervisors kept extending her position until she could find full-time work at Spectrum Health.

It came in April, thanks to a chance meeting with fellow veteran Carolyn Faber, manager of the triage center for Spectrum Health.

‘Trust your gut’

Menken and Faber, a former U.S. Army nurse, were seated beside each other at a veteran inclusion meeting.

Faber had spent weeks interviewing candidates for an administrative assistant position, but she still hadn’t found the right fit.

She immediately invited Menken for an interview.

“At the end of her two interviews, I was fighting with my boss to keep her,” Faber said. “He was very impressed by her and thought he could find another position for her. There was no way I was going to give her up.”

Faber knows the job is a stepping stone for Menken, and she’s working with her to plan her future career.

“Here’s a really talented person who should find a place in this organization,” Faber said. “We will benefit from having someone like her in any capacity.”

Faber also knows the challenges Menken faced transitioning to the corporate world.

“When you’re in uniform, you’re kind of wearing your resume,” Faber said, pointing out that a soldier’s uniform displays rank, achievements, years of service and years in a combat environment. “There’s a lot to that. When you’re in a room with a lot of people, you know where you stand.”

Faber and Menken are both pleased with Menken’s fit in her new job.

Menken said she’s happy she transitioned into the business world professionally, while still serving her country as a member of the Army Reserve.

She encourages other veterans in their journey to secure meaningful employment.

“It sounded tough when other people would tell me this advice, but it’s true,” she said. “Trust your gut. If this is something you’re interested in, pursue it. Utilize your resources. Get out of your comfort zone.”