Since leaving the Air Force in 2007, I’ve been working and learning in the higher education arena. Through a lot of luck and good mentorship, I’ve been fortunate enough to start a Veterans Services program at my institution. In my work, I find that I keep helping future student Veterans with the same issues over and over again. This post is designed as a success-booster for those Veterans who aspire to complete a college education after they’ve completed their military service.
You probably learned in the service that you were your own best advocate. That’s still true. In spite of all the great benefits that have been put into place to help you go to school, you are still the primary person responsible for making it all happen. Here are some key ideas to help us, the people at the colleges and universities you want to attend, help you get here.
1. Get your paperwork together. Before you leave the service, or well before you want to start taking classes, get a file of paperwork together that documents your service, as well as any college experience. Have a copy of your DD-214, a copy of your VA Certificate of Eligibility for Education Benefits, your military transcript and official copies of any other college transcripts on hand; ready to turn in during the application process. If you have little or no previous college experience, have your high school transcript and ACT/SAT test scores ready too. Having to wait on these documents will slow down your response in getting admitted to the school of your choice.
2. Know the process. Most two-year or community colleges have open enrollment. That means you can sign up for classes without going through a formal admissions process. However, if your goal is a four-year or graduate degree, be prepared to go through a more rigorous application process. You’ll be required to submit transcripts and your academic credentials will be reviewed before you can enroll, so expect this process to take longer. A good rule of thumb is to apply to a four-year school at the beginning of the semester before you want to start taking classes. (Yes, that’s a solid 14 weeks in advance!)
3. Read everything. Almost everything you want to know about how to go to college is already out there. Visit the website of the school you want to attend and read their admissions policies and procedures. Learn about federal financial aid at www.fafsa.ed.gov. You might find an excellent person to talk to on the phone who is able to answer all of your questions. . .and you might not. Just because you haven’t found that person yet, doesn’t mean you have to approach college uninformed. Do your homework well before you ever start taking classes. While you’re reading, take notes. Write down dates, names, phone numbers, and email addresses. Your plan of action will evolve as you begin to apply the information you find to your specific situation. Having notes will remind you of where you learned of the information in the first place!
4. Help us learn. The military and academia have been growing independently since the 1960s. We just haven’t mingled much. We are now embarking on a new era and are learning a whole lot about each other. A strong movement is sweeping higher education across the nation. We want and need to know more about you so that we can serve you better. Both communities have nuances in our jargon. Let’s keep talking. Maybe let’s just talk slower and spell out our acronyms. We’ll get to know each other, and as a result, more effectively advance our collective cause.
5. Have a dream. Follow it. Higher education is about growth and aspiration. Maybe your goal is to get in, get out, and get a job similar to your military field. If that’s your dream, do it. Maybe your goal is to explore something new and find a new path for your life. If that’s your dream, do it. The leaders in this country wanted you to have an opportunity to follow your own dreams, now that you’ve helped fulfill ours. That’s why you have this benefit. Use it to put yourself on a path to academic and personal success–however you define it.
Once you’ve started your academic career, just like when you started in the military, you’ll find that you’re challenged in ways that at times are both frustrating and incredibly rewarding. Find a group of friends and colleagues who help you experience both the frustration and rewards. You might find the Student Veterans Organization (www.studentveterans.org) on your campus to be a good starting place. Many campuses are opening Veteran Service Centers, staffed and maintained by Veterans. In fact, it might be an organization or center that needs your involvement and leadership!
Meet this new mission with the same commitment you gave the old one. It’s your time. It’s your future.
Sally Caspers is the Rebel VETS (Veterans Education & Transition Support) Program Coordinator at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Sally is an Air Force Veteran and recently completed a Master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership. She has a bachelor’s degree in Russian/Area Studies from American University, Washington, DC, and received her commission from the Howard University Air Force ROTC program.