The GI Bill is a fantastic resource for anyone exiting the military. College isn’t for everyone, and veterans are no exception, but it can be an opportunity to expand your mind, gain a useful degree, and it can be an opportunity to reintegrate into civilian life with some government income still dropping in your pocket.
There are a few things I wished I knew when I left the Army to use my GI Bill and earn my degree. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but arming myself with this knowledge before ETSing and heading to school would have been extremely useful.
1. Ask questions from people who know things
Military benefits like the GI Bill are great, but they don’t just automatically kick in the moment you gain veteran status. It’s a machine that works in your benefit — but like any machine, you have learn how it operates. You don’t pick up an M4 after basic training and suddenly turn into Jason Bourne; it takes a whole host of instructors teaching you step-by-step. You may be surprised at how few veterans actually sit down at the beginning and learn each step to the GI Bill, figure out what the key terms are and what they mean, research tutorials online, or even call knowledgeable people and pick their brains on the subject.
If the university has a veteran center, the easiest way to do this is to sit down with them with a list of questions and just go through them.
It took me a couple semesters before I actually did this. I filled out all the paperwork sent my way, asked what else I needed to do, and I got in and did fine — but I wasn’t super proactive, didn’t do a ton of deliberate research, and it could have easily opened the door to a slew of problems. You often hear “I sent it but I didn’t hear back” (or some equivalent) as a reason for failing to enroll. In reality, this sort of thing requires a knowledge of the system, and thankfully that information can be mostly found online, over the phone, or through friends.
If you’re a veteran on the GI Bill, you’re not in the military anymore. No one is going to hold your hand, no one is going to chase you down for shots or drag you to dental appointments, and no one is going to fix you if you wrongly fill out paperwork or didn’t know you had to fill something out. If you rely on that sort of system to support you, your progress will come to a screeching halt every time there is a hitch.
Regardless of whether or not this is indicative of a broken system, it’s the system we have — know how to navigate it. The name of the game with all veteran benefits is: be proactive.
2. Have a plan
Leaving the military is a drastic change in lifestyle, no matter how you swing it, and having a plan is crucial. Education is no exception, though some people use the GI Bill as a buffer to “figure it out.” After all, your education and living expenses are paid for, so why not take a year or two to just kind of wander your way through civilian life as you re-adjust?
“I’m going to head to school, maybe get like a degree or something.” That’s not a plan, that’s winging it.
“I’m going to go to school, take some basic, core classes, see what clicks, and pursue that. If nothing clicks, I’ll re-evaluate what I’m doing there.” That’s a plan. It’s not a great one, but it’ll work.
Degree choice is obviously a major factor here. A lot of people will poke fun at “useless” degrees, but the only useless degree is one that comes without a plan. A degree is not a one-way ticket to a great job, it’s just a bullet point in your resume. Some jobs require it, others simply prefer it, and others couldn’t care less about it.
As you work your way through school, it’s important to ensure that your plan extends beyond your degree. What are you going to do with your degree? Can you take an internship that would help with that? Who are you talking to that might hire you? What personal and professional relationships are you building? Are there certificate courses or volunteer opportunities that would help gain employment?
I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and it’s worked immensely in my favor. However, that hasn’t been the case for everyone in my class. Some went on to become teachers like they wanted, others found niche corners in the writing world and have thrived, but many simply got an English degree because they liked reading and never formed a real plan around that passion. This is a common issue among “art” degrees of various forms, but it’s also a problem with technical degrees too. Getting a degree in physics doesn’t ensure some sort of job in the physics world. Getting a degree in architecture doesn’t magically make you an architect, you need a plan beyond school to see that through.
Just like mission planning, it requires flexibility. The mission may change at any time, and that’s okay. You might fail and need to readjust, and that’s okay too. If you head to Engineering school, realize you hate math, then switch to something else — no problem. Just keep continuously planning, flexing as necessary, and moving forward.
Forward motion is of the utmost importance, whether that means taking school in the summer, changing degrees, leaving school entirely, or buckling down with the degree you started with and seeing it through.
3. Understand what you’re there for
There are going to be obstacles in school. Some veterans are annoyed that teenagers don’t have the same life experience they do, some are rubbed the wrong way by the culture or the fact that they have to take classes that aren’t directly related to their degree. Others find the whole thing difficult, as learning in a classroom isn’t their forte (this was me with math). The sad reality is that some veterans will squeeze by, passing with the bare minimum and complaining the entire time. They are not the majority in the veteran community, but they certainly exist.
You’re there to learn and to get a degree. If that is some profound chore or ultimate obstacle in life, it’s possible that college isn’t right for you. In my opinion, community colleges and certificate courses are better suited for a huge number of Americans, veterans included — not only is there no shame in that, but they can serve to be amazing opportunities that lead to high paying jobs.
But if you’re in college, embrace it. It’s a place for learning, so you can become a nerd (I certainly did). It’s also a way to push yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable, good. Stretch your mind, take classes that you’re passionate about but that might be a challenge. Learn about history and other cultures or religions or political structures. Some professors have political agendas, some don’t, but all have something to teach. Even the classes that seem redundant or useless have nuggets of useful truth in them, for anyone with an open ear.
You can use it all to your own advantage — whether or not it becomes a profound waste of time or not is up to you. When people talk about personal responsibility in the civilian world, this is what they mean.
Veterans have the unique opportunity to jump back into school as an adult, as someone with life experience that other students can look up to and emulate. You don’t automatically gain everyone’s respect just by being a veteran (nor should you), but you can earn it and be the shining example for others to follow. That doesn’t have to mean straight As, but it could mean you serve as the example of showing respect, hard work in all facets of life, and professionalism.
It’s pretty simple: If you’re at school, your objective is to learn and get a degree. When I was in the Army, a platoon sergeant once told me, “If someone tells you to knock out a bunker, take it better than anyone’s ever taken it before. If someone tells you to mop a floor, mop it better than anyone’s ever mopped it before.”
If you’re setting out for school, own it. Be the best student that you can possibly be.