"How's your exam going?" York asks one student as she walks into Montana State University's newly dedicated Veteran Support Center, a Strand Union Building-located facility brought into being under her guidance last fall. The man's chuckle and salty reply speak volumes: York's demeanor has earned her insider status with campus vets.
After watching the struggles of her father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, York says she understands on a visceral level that the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may find integrating into civilian life a challenge.
As director of MSU's office of Disability, Re-entry and Veterans Services, York's mission is to try to smooth the bumps inherent in navigating a university system--for those vets, for people with disabilities, and for anyone who, as she once did, decides to take on college at a nontraditional time in their lives.
When she recounts the leaps forward made by those who have faced hurdles in life most cannot fathom--lost limbs, buddies killed, relationships threatened or ruined--her pride is unmistakable.
"When I see these guys doing great, well yeah, it makes me smile," she says.
One example is Saul Martinez, who cuts a fairly high profile as he rides around campus on his Segway.
"To go through what he's gone through and to do the things he's doing now, you can't help but be inspired," York says. "If that were me, I'd probably be in a heap in the corner. But watching how Saul handles everything, that's the payoff for me. It's just amazing."
Martinez, a 27-year-old father of two, lost his legs in 2007 when a bomb blast struck his patrol in the town of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. After nine days in a coma--and medevac flights to Baghdad, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and finally to Virginia's Walter Reed Army Institute of Research--Martinez awoke with his wife by his side.
Some four years later, Martinez has left the military, moved to Montana from California, and is a sophomore majoring in sociology with plans to work for the federal government in the intelligence field.
Whatever praise York might pile on him, Martinez is quick to turn around on the person he sees as his guardian angel at MSU.
"Brenda made it so much easier for me to get started here," Martinez says. "That was a big thing for me because, on top of everything else I was dealing with, my wife was actually eight months pregnant at the time. So it was just huge the way she helped with anything I had a question about. With Brenda and her staff, nothing gets put on the back burner."
That passion and commitment was evident when York was a nontraditional student and single mother who enrolled at MSU in 1990.
Bob Waters, York's boss when she started in the Disabilities, Re-entry and Veterans Services office in 1997, points to the talents he saw in York as the president of MSU's organization for nontraditional students. York, who received a bachelor's degree in secondary education in 1995 and a master's in adult and higher education in 2004, both from MSU, went to work for Waters after a brief stint teaching high school history in Arizona.
"I was impressed by her energy right from the start," Waters says. "So when she came back to Montana and I had a chance to hire her, I jumped at the chance."
Waters says York had the same can-do work ethic as people he knew growing up in rural Iowa.
"She reminded me of a lot of those kids I'd known--kids who didn't look for someone else to blame when the cows got out," Waters says. "She just picked up the work and went after it like a tornado."
Allen Yarnell, vice president of student success and York's boss, puts most of the credit for opening the Veteran Support Center on that tornado.
"She had great foresight," Yarnell says. "She was in my door as soon as a possible place to put the center opened up. She knew what that would mean to our vets."
Yarnell says York showed the same ahead-of-the-curve thinking on MSU's participation in the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement program, which covers some of veterans' expenses the GI Bill does not.
More than 500 veterans are currently enrolled at MSU, while nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 500,000 men and women are using the post-9/11 GI Bill. With more veterans in the mix, and tens of thousands of troops returning from combat duty overseas, York made securing a place of their own on campus a priority.
"She got on that very quickly," Yarnell says. "And on the students with disabilities side (of her job), it's no different. She's the one who has to make sure the university is up to speed on all the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements."
York says people who knew her as a rodeo kid trying to outdo her three brothers in Gallatin Gateway might not have predicted her growing up to be a staunch advocate for those needing a little assistance.
It was during her first teaching job, in Yuma, Ariz., that she realized that she "gravitated to the students who were having a harder time." Often coming from a hard-core gangster culture, there was something fatalistic in their views of their violence-prone lives, York says. These Mexican immigrants' attitude commanded a certain respect--"You find yourself just saying, 'wow.'"
It also made her want to see new, more-hopeful doors opened for them.
York says she wants the same thing when a vet or a person with a disability or someone juggling kids and jobs and school walks into her office at MSU. And if some of those she meets along the way are a bit gruff or hostile, she says she can deal with that.
"When people say, 'Why are you helping them?' I just have to say after hearing what some of these people have been through, I can't imagine not helping them."