When I left the Army in 2016, I knew I was taking a leap of faith. I had spent the previous six years as a military police officer, and it was the only thing I knew. Still, I wanted to move into nonprofit management, and knew I needed a graduate degree to strengthen my credentials. Since I went to a military college for undergrad, I was clueless about how to navigate a typical college campus where you didn’t have to stand in formation three times a day.
Still, I dug in and entered the University of Washington as a graduate student and Veteran hell-bent on both getting a degree and figuring out the “real” college experience. Up to that point, I had spent my whole adult life as an officer. Returning to school after six years in the Army, I was eager to make the most of my time as a student Veteran. Here’s my take on how you can do the same.
Use your GI Bill
Using the GI Bill to pay for college meant I could devote more time to studying and working and less time figuring out how to pay my tuition or rent.
There are several different versions of the GI Bill, and I used the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which paid for 70% of my total tuition. To be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill you must have active military service on or after September 10, 2001. Aside from tuition and fees, the Post-9/11 GI Bill also offers:
- A Monthly Housing Allowance (see BAH Rates).
- Up to $1,000 a year for books and other supplies.
- The ability (only on active duty, not after) to transfer your GI Bill benefits to spouses and dependents.
Check out the university Vet Center
For my undergraduate education, I attended a service academy, and therefore never really had to navigate the financial aid process or work with college administrators to get aid disbursed. For this reason, I relied heavily on the University of Washington’s Vet Center to help me figure out how to actually use my VA benefits. Even before my first day on campus, I was able to email and call the college Vet Center to ask about the specifics of enrolling as an in-state student even though I was out of state on military duty at the time, as well as about applying for grants.
Know what you don’t know
As an Army Military Police Officer, my training pre-graduate school was focused on learning the tactical and operational skills needed to be an effective and knowledgeable law enforcement supervisor. To make the transition from protection and security to public policy and administration, I knew I needed to grow my experience by working a job outside of the military. As a graduate student, I took a staff intern job for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell. Through this work, I got to interact directly with constituents and hear their opinions and concerns about the work happening in our government’s legislative body. During grad school, I also worked as a writing and research coach at the university library, which gave me the opportunity to work directly with students in higher education. This experience helped me land the job I have now at a local school district headquarters.
Stay connected and get involved
While I wanted grad school to be a time to learn, I also knew that I wanted to take advantage of the 100s of clubs and activities that students can participate in. I’m also a person who can’t sit still if there’s work to be done or something to get involved in. So, along with a fellow Veteran, I co-developed, produced, and hosted a podcast called Speak Freely. During each episode of Speak Freely, we bring a wide variety of Veterans onto the show to discuss and provide common sense and collaborative solutions to issues like education reform and income inequality. I saw the podcast as an ideal opportunity to publicly discuss issues like poverty and race equity. The Veteran perspective is a unique and diverse group of people, and it has enabled me to maintain connections with my fellow Veterans outside of uniform, allowing me to stay close to my military roots.
Joy Turner is a graduate of West Point and the University of Washington. As a former military officer, she served for six years in the Military Police Corps before transitioning to civilian life where she works in higher education as an analyst and college admissions advisor.