This article will cover the basic definition and goal of the Virtual Private Network operated by the University of Minnesota, and cases in which you may wish to use the VPN service.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service that allows users to connect to the University's network regardless of their geographic location. This gives users access to a number of applications that are not open to the internet as a whole. The U's VPN is encrypted (similarly to the eduroam Wi-Fi network), meaning your activity over the internet cannot be viewed by people who share your internet connection.
There are certain services managed by the University that use software that could allow these services to be shared over the internet as a whole, but these services are limited to the University's network so that people who aren't members of the University community cannot access them. For example, some copies of Microsoft Office used by staff need to communicate with a computer on the University's network in order to verify that the copy of Office is properly licensed. If the computer that authorizes the staff member's laptop were accessible to the internet, it would be possible for a malicious individual to use that staff member's legal copy of Office instead. A Virtual Private Network connection allows the staff member to bring her laptop home for the weekend and continue to use the same software she does at work.
You may wish to use the VPN if:
You need to access an application as though you were on campus
You are working on a computer using a shared, public internet connection (e.g. a coffee shop) and are handling information you wish to be encrypted