A Veteran’s Blueprint for College



Having just finished school, I wanted to write an amazing article on what that experience was like as a veteran. (Un)fortunately, Alex Horton and Colby Buzzell recently wrote fantastic articles about that strange transition – and did so in a way that I could not. So instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by writing about some of the nuts and bolts of going to college on the GI Bill and ultimately finishing school with a degree.

In the five years since leaving the Army, I managed to squeeze out an undergraduate degree (CCNY, 2010) and a master’s degree (SOAS, 2011) almost entirely covered by the GI Bill. Starting school, it’s important to understand that getting an education is a long and grueling process. I spent as much time in school as I did in the Army. This post chronicles that journey and might act as a light blueprint for a veteran looking to go to school.

Overcome the skepticism and go

During my last six months of active duty, I met with a number of senior NCOs and retention specialists to discuss staying in the Army and my plans upon separating. The conversations usually went like this:

NCO: “You’re getting out? What are you going to do?”
Me: “I’m going to go to college.”
NCO: “Yeah, alright. It’s not that easy, you know.”

Informal conversations with peers about my future as a college student were often met with rolled eyes and skepticism. It was generally assumed that separating soldiers responded with “going to college” as an answer to questions about future plans without actually putting the thought into what going to college entails. College was also shrouded in mystery as a foreign institution far outside of the base gate since most of the enlisted soldiers surrounding me had not attended. This mystery meant they didn’t have a good second line of questioning. A soldier could say they were simply going to college and that was a good enough plan. Most active duty soldiers don’t have much experience with accessing VA benefits, so there is little advice they can offer.

But if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics.

Swallow your pride – start at community college if you must

Fortunately, I had a basic plan. I wanted to pursue Middle East studies and Arabic. In order to do that, I needed to go to a school that offered it. I wanted to go to the City College of New York (CCNY), but I was not a good student in high school, so applying directly was not an option. So, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a local community college to sharpen my academic skills and boost my GPA before applying to CCNY. At community college, I only took core courses that would easily transfer to CCNY by checking the requirements of the degree program I wanted at CCNY and matching up the requirements to courses at the community college I was attending. I had to take a year of remedial math before I could even enroll in a math course that actually counted. It wasn’t fun, but I needed it. And this year of taking courses I didn’t necessarily want to take laid the foundation for future academic success.

I got my first taste of life with the GI Bill at community college. Fortunately, the community college I attended had a full-time representative that handled veterans issues and she ensured I always received GI Bill payments. If your school has a veterans office, lean on it. Hard.

Start with core courses/general studies – they transfer easier

After a year of community college, I transferred to the City College of New York. Because I had only taken core courses, nearly all of my credits transferred – meaning I hadn’t wasted any time. Switching my GI Bill to this new school was trickier, since it required switching regions. I didn’t have any problems with receiving payments though, because I applied for the GI Bill early and checked up regularly. Phone calls and website inquiries are a student veteran’s best friend when it comes to ensuring timely disbursement of funds.

Stay up-to-date on the latest benefit changes

By the time the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, I had nearly exhausted all of my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. I was a little bummed, since I was otherwise fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and would have received substantially more than what I was getting with the Montgomery. Closely reading the rules governing the new benefit, however, I learned that if I exhausted my Montgomery GI Bill I would then be eligible for twelve months of Post-9/11 GI Bill. Knowing this, I was able to continue to receive GI Bill benefits in the final months of my undergraduate program and then use what was left to help pay for a graduate program in London.

If you do something weird (like study abroad), be prepared to work – you might be trailblazing

I chose to continue my education by attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers studying at foreign institutions, but the rules governing this are different than the rules governing studying at US institutions. In order to make it work, I needed to get the specific program I was interested in approved by the VA before I could start receiving benefits. This can be a long process and one that requires lots of phone calls to desks in VA offices across the US.

I also needed to get letters from the VA documenting approximately how much money I would receive over the course of the year to apply for a UK visa – not a normal thing that the VA does. Also, all housing allowances for foreign institutions are set at a locked rate regardless of the location overseas, which may be substantially less than what you will need. While studying in London, I had a GI Bill discrepancy, and troubleshooting the issue was a little more difficult since calling back to the US could get expensive. Lastly, administrative staff at foreign institutions may have never processed a US veteran before, so you need to be prepared to teach someone “how to do it.”

Spin your service into more opportunities

The Post-9/11 GI Bill shouldn’t be the only legacy of your military service while in school. Veterans represent a tiny portion of any college campus. That, together with the unique experiences, ingrained discipline, and plethora of stories can easily by marshaled to pursue other opportunities, like prestigious scholarships. By supplementing your Post-9/11 GI Bill with other scholarships, you can extend the life of your benefits and potentially squeeze out another degree before you finish.

Start slow, but stay in the game

Since starting school, there have been two problems that I’ve seen over and over again with veterans and college: the veteran who never starts school because of how long it takes to finish and the one that never finishes because he or she takes on too much at once. The first puts off going to school every semester because it’s going to take forever anyway (“Why bother? I have to take a year of classes that don’t even count before I can even start school for real”). The second starts school and then is in a rush to finish, often taking too many courses while holding a job and taking on too many side projects. Both of these veterans have a hard time finishing college, but their solutions are similar: start slow and build momentum. Even if it means starting with one or two courses a semester. Slowly, the veteran will build momentum and start taking on more. Each course is one course closer to finishing.

Lastly, as much as possible, resist the urge to take a semester off. These breaks often last longer than intended.

Good luck!

Additional tips:

Enroll as soon as possible – the sooner you start, the sooner you finish

Have a basic plan (what do you ultimately want to study?)

Backwards plan – find the job you want – determine what degree or education it requires – determine which school offers it – figure out how to get into that school – execute!

Knock out your core requirements first – this might take a year or more, in which time you can think critically about the end game and make adjustments if necessary. Also, core requirements are usually the most transferable, so if you change schools, they won’t be credits, time, and money wasted.

Know the rules to the GI Bill and stay up-to-date on changes (this can mean more money, or at least, not having to pay back)

Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry (if you have any problems, send an inquiry immediately through the VA website)

When it comes to the GI Bill, apply early and check up regularly

Be on the lookout for other veteran-specific scholarships

Stay in school – even if it means one course a semester

Don Gomez is an Iraq War veteran who recently finished his MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Follow him on Twitter: @dongomezjr

Author

Don Gomez

Comments

  1. Rachel    

    Thanks for such an informative post – I’m glad to have stumbled upon it as I’m in the process of applying to SOAS with the GI Bill. Can you impart any specific advice?

  2. Benjamin Matwey    

    Don: Great post. I just shared it on our 166th Airlift Wing Facebook page.

  3. Benjamin Matwey    

    Don: Great post. I just shared it on our wing Facebook page, and will post a link on our 166th Airlift Wing Air Force Public Web site.

  4. Lisa Stern    

    GREAT info, Don. I especially like the ‘backwards plan’ tip. I’ve been a career counselor for 20++ years and have always used that method to help students ‘see the forest through the trees.’ And, I couldn’t agree with you more: if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics! Reach out for help if you need it. There are many of us in the field who will bend over backwards to help you get on the path you desire.

    As an aside, The American Council on Education is working on a Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions (http://vetfriendlytoolkit.org/) that should be launched by 11/11/11. Hopefully each and every institution (including on-line) that accepts GIBill dollars will take heed and proactively provide coordinated services for veterans.

    Again – congrats on an amazing article AND on achieving your masters degree.

  5. Lazaro    

    It does take a lot of effort but it is well worth it. I got a job after my service with the Air Force for a defense contractor doing basically the same duties I did while I was in. With the encouragement of my project manager and other vets I met at school (Omega Delta Sigma) I completed a B.S. in accounting and will soon sit for my CPA. Completely different than what I thought I would do after my service but I love it.
    Hoo Ya!

  6. julio    

    Thanks for the heads up! Im in my second year, I made dean’s list my first semester and maintaining my gpa above a 3.5… I treat every class like a mission and I get it done! I love hearing Vets doing well since compared to the ordinary student we look extraordinary for being able to serve our country on the frontline and in the workforce! HOOAH!!!!!!!!

  7. Eddie    

    Great article Don. i left the Navy in 2006 and since then i have finished my BA and J.D. degrees!! Most was paid by the Gi Bill , the rest on the Hazlewood Act (The state of Texas pays your tuition). Every thing Don says in his article is right on the money. Especially the part about NCOs not supporting your decision to go to college. (luckily for me my Division Officer told me different and said he had no doubt in his mind that i would graduate from college.) I had my Command Master Chief laugh at me when i told him i wanted to graduate from college, he thought that idea was absurd. He told me to reenlist for another 4 years and take classes on base or online on my off time. Unfortunately with deployment cycles getting shorter and man power being reduced, your opportunity to take college classes on base or online are virtually none existence. As it was i was working 50+ hours per week while at home base and 80+ hours per week on deployments.
    So i would like to tell all of you guys out there who about to EOS from the military who are thinking of going to college to DO IT!!….Believe me when i tell you that we have been through much worse in the military. Use everyone’s negative comments about you not making it through college to fuel your drive to finish your degree. I know i did. School will take time, dedication and a lot of long nites studying but ill tell you what, it was well worth it.
    Good Luck guys!!!

    (p.s. After i graduated from Law School, i called my old command master chief and told him he could go f*$k himself, i graduated from college! Called my old Division Officer and thanked him for his advice and support.)

  8. Sean Richardson    

    Great info! I have been there and done this. I started college in 1992 after 8 years of service with some of the same concerns. I started at a Jr. College and that was a great way to get into the mode and get up to speed. I grabbed a two year degree and then pursued a 4 year in Architecture at UTA. When I joined the military I knew that I would wash out of college, I was just too wild. So I joined the Navy, wound up in a small Intel field and figured out I could learn. We had to read and sign off monthly on pubs that came out to keep up to date. With the discipline and the the things I figured out about myself college was not as bad as I had been thinking. I found I enjoyed learning and started making the Dean’s list. It was not easy, but it was a great experience and well worth the effort.

  9. Tony Mena    

    Another great post Don. And congrats on finishing!

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