Sterling College has a diverse faculty and staff coming from all different walks of life, and many students never get to know them beyond the classroom or passerby interactions.
The same can be said for Sterling College’s Information Technology Specialist Sarah Birzer.
Birzer served in the Air Force for eight years, which included serving in Afghanistan from 2011-2012.
What may be more interesting than her years of service, is how a small-town girl from Lyons ended up in the Air Force.
“It was the first year of ROTC there at Lyons and a friend of mine (Jami Silva), her entire family was military, and so she was like, ‘Sarah, let’s join the Air Force together,’” Birzer said.
After considering the pros and cons of college — and the student loans that come with it — Birzer decided to give the Air Force a shot and entered delayed enlistment out of Salina.
She stayed in delayed enlistment for a year and a half before joining basic training in 2007.
However, Birzer’s parents, Tim and Donetta Birzer, had differing opinions on her idea to join the military.
“My mom was not for it at all. She was like, ‘Why Sarah?’” Birzer said. “But my dad was like, ‘Oh yeah, if you want to go, go ahead.’”
She eventually talked her mom into allowing her to go.
“It was pretty much, ‘Mom, I’m 18, and if I want to go, I’m going to go,’” Birzer said.
Ironically enough, Birzer’s friend Silva ended up going to college instead of joining the military.
“I still give her crap about it,” Birzer said.
After basic training, Birzer was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, where she attended tech school and learned what to do at her first duty station.
She was then sent to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“That (Las Vegas) to me was a complete culture shock,” Birzer said. “I’m so used to a small town and then going to a big city. I think it was a good five or six months before I actually drove on the highway.”
Birzer worked in both the IT and administration, but she’ll be the first to tell you that neither was her first career choice.
“I hated them (computers) so much. I was not technology savvy at all in high school,” she said.
Birzer originally wanted to go into the medical field, but there were no slots available at the time she enrolled, and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) sorted her into the area of technology, computers and administrative field.
After Nellis, she was deployed to Afghanistan where she recalls some of her intense and challenging, but also funniest, memories.
“The first attack that we got. It was my second day over there, and when the alarms sound I woke up, and I was like, ‘What is that sound?’, and so the girls that were placed with me were gearing up and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’, and she was like, ‘We’ve got to go,’ and I was like, ‘Is that a tornado siren?’, and she was like, ‘Where are you from?’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m from Kansas,’” Birzer said. “And that’s how I got my nickname (Dorthy).”
One of the challenges she faced while in Afghanistan was being separated from her 2-year-old son, Landon.
“That was probably one of the hardest times was to be away from him for close to a year and just not being there for things like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and his third birthday and Mothers’ Day,” Birzer said. “That was tough, but I knew he was in good hands.”
The challenges didn’t stop there, as she found coming home to be a whole other battle.
“I didn’t like loud noises. They would put me on edge,” Birzer said. “So my first Fourth of July I didn’t like it at all, which sucked because that was like my favorite holiday. It doesn’t bother me anymore, but it was my first month coming back, and it was still fresh.”
Nonetheless, Birzer found comfort in returning to the same squadron and being around familiar faces.
After leaving the military, Birzer began pursuing her original career of medicine and became a certified nursing assistant (CNA) working at Lyons Good Samaritan Center from 2015-2016.
She furthered her medical education at Barton Community College where she pursued a degree in nursing. Birzer then began working at the Rice County District Hospital where she worked from 2016-2017.
However, Birzer eventually came back to computers with a little help from her father.
“My dad knows how to sign into computers, and that’s pretty much it. So he got me going again on the whole IT thing,” she said. “Then I went on Indeed.com, and I saw that Sterling College was hiring another IT person. I came in and interviewed. A month later I got a call from David (Landis), and now I’m here.”
Birzer was hired by Sterling College in May of 2018 and has felt at home ever since.
“I feel like I have a second family, like an extended family,” Birzer said. “Everyone has been, since day one, very welcoming and loving and supportive and patient. I know it’s been a rollercoaster from May to where we are now.”
As Veteran’s Day approaches, Birzer reflects on her time in the services and what an honor it is to be a part of something bigger.
“You don’t really know, especially being from a small town, how many veterans there are until you’re a veteran yourself,” Birzer said. “It’s an honor to say, ‘Yes, I did serve,’ and I miss it every day.”