Straight Talk: MATC Alumna Uses Her Experience and Education To Find the Next Generation of Nurses

Practical Nursing graduate selected as one of the first nurse recruiters for Wisconsin’s Veteran Affairs medical facilities

Mark Feldmann,

February 07, 2024

Brigette Bendzka

I can’t speak highly enough about what MATC did for me and my career. It gave me the foundation for everything that came after. No other school that I attended after MATC matched it.

Brigette Bendzka MATC Practical Nursing graduate

Brigette L. Bendzka speaks nurse fluently.

With two decades of professional experience at Milwaukee’s Clement J. Zablocki Veterans’ Administration Medical Center and a rich education that started with a practical nursing diploma from Milwaukee Area Technical College, Bendzka can tell it like it is to today’s high school and college students who want to become tomorrow’s registered nurses.

“The idea of nursing being a calling has changed in the minds of many people,” Bendzka said. “Nursing is hard work, it’s very rewarding work, but still hard work. Hearing from a person in the profession, having a peer to peer conversation with someone who knows the landscape of policies and procedures, I think is very impactful. “I believe they listen to that.”

Her no-nonsense perspective and straight-forward talk helped Bendzka, a Milwaukee native, become one of first patient care service nurse recruiters in Wisconsin’s Veterans Affairs (VA) system in September 2022.

Bendzka and her fellow nurse recruiter, Jennifer Scott, host career fairs at the Zablocki Center, travel to community schools, attend job fairs and have established a partnership with M³ (pronounced M-cubed), a collaboration between MATC, Milwaukee Public Schools and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The recruiters cover a 7,500-square-mile territory that includes 16 counties in southeastern and east-central Wisconsin and VA facilities and clinics in Milwaukee, Appleton, Cleveland, Green Bay and Union Grove. 

Historically, VA medical facilities, which employ more than 113,000 nurses across the nation, never had many problems filling open positions because of the attractive salaries and benefits that come with federal careers. “We would have 50 openings and get 500 applicants,” Bendzka said.

But that changed as experienced nurses retired, more veterans sought medical help, and VA medical centers and clinics modernized and implemented new technology. In February 2023, federal VA officials announced plans to hire almost 15,000 nursing personnel during the next few years.

The system hired more than 3,600 new nurses in 2023 but still needs more, said Dr. M. Christopher Saslo, Veteran Health Administration’s assistant undersecretary for health for patient care services and chief nursing officer. “Although I am happy to see positive growth, we are still far from where we need to be,” he said.

When Bendzka started as a recruiter in 2022, almost 18% of nursing positions at the Zablocki Center were unfilled. Within a year, that number dropped to a little over 13%. 

She works with many colleges, including MATC. She also tries to convince high school students thinking about going into nursing to work at VA facilities.

“We introduce them to the opportunities that we have and hopefully get them into entry-level positions such as a nurse’s assistant. Then we provide professional development in the way of financial support, mentorship and educational guidance,” Bendzka explained. 

Discipline was something Bendzka lacked in high school. She attended Milwaukee Public Schools’ Rufus King High School for more than three years before graduating from MPS’ Custer High School in 1988. She was a less than serious student and years of academic disregard caught up with her. “I was rambunctious,” she said with a smile. “My grades did not reflect my preparedness for college so I made the decision to join the military.”

Her mother was a chief master sergeant in the United States Air Force, and her stepfather also was in the Air Force. Her father served in the Marines. Several of her uncles were in the Army.

“The military gave me the discipline I needed,” Bendzka said. She served in military intelligence and served during the Persian Gulf conflict before being honorably discharged in 1991.

She returned to Wisconsin and enrolled in MATC’s Licensed Practical Nursing program. “MATC was strict, but coming from the military, it was an easy transition for me,” she said. “Everything was structured, disciplined and demanded respect.”

Bendzka remembered her MATC nursing instructors as tough but fair. “I always said they were like bananas — soft on the inside but firm on the outside,” she said. “Classes started at 8 a.m., and doors were closed by 8:05 a.m. Three tardies and you got kicked out of the class. But they taught us what we needed to know, and they reminded us that MATC was the important first step.”

She worked as a medical laboratory technician while attending classes and earned her diploma in 1999. She went on to get an associate degree in nursing from Cardinal Stritch University, a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Concordia University and a master’s degree in nursing from Western Governors University.

After graduating from MATC in 1999, she took a job at Milwaukee’s Zablocki Center, where she met her husband, also a nurse, while working on the Spinal Cord Injury unit. They got married and now have an 18-year-old daughter.

Bendzka has settled into her nurse recruiting role, but she is considering law school. She plans to get her law degree in the next four or five years, and someday she hopes to become a public law attorney helping craft federal legislation.

And anything she accomplishes in the future is the result of what she learned and achieved at MATC.

“I can’t speak highly enough about what MATC did for me and my career,” Bendzka said. “It gave me the foundation for everything that came after. No other school that I attended after MATC matched it.”

Read about MATC’s Practical Nursing program

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 30,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.