The Veteran Back-to-School Reader

It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.

I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.

Posts about the technical aspects of college:
A Veteran’s Blueprint for College – The nuts and bolts of going to college as a veteran.
College Success: Leveraging Your Vet-Cred – How to use your veteran experience to your advantage while at school 

Posts about college life for veterans:
From Soldier to Student, a Bumpy Road – The strange life of the student veteran, by Alex Horton
Johnny Get Your Textbook – What it’s like… by Colby Buzzell

Posts about transitioning out of the military:
Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the MilitaryThis is good general advice on making it work outside of the military.

Posts about studying Arabic as a veteran:
Learning a Language, and Relearning a Country – A former soldier decides to study Arabic and faces some awkwardness and discomfort.

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A Veteran’s Blueprint for College

This post originally ran on VAntage Point, the VA’s blog. Since school is starting, I thought I’d repost it here.

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

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“Cultural Cluelessness”

I read this article in Wired today about “Cultural Cluelessness.” The gist of it is that the recent Quran controversy indicates a deeper problem within the US military regarding sensitivity and understanding towards “other” cultures.

After my first deployment to Iraq, I thought the Army would stand to benefit from something more than cursory training on the contours of cultural awareness or sensitivity, or what I like to call the “Wikipedia class on Islam.” We talk about the “strategic corporal” as a central player on the battlefield, but as a senior officer recently pointed out to me, the strategic corporal concept only seems to work in the negative – when there is something detrimental done. There are no stories of the strategic corporal that did something that changed the war in the positive – or at least I haven’t heard that story. How then, do you arm the strategic corporal with the knowledge to make sure he or she doesn’t make that mistake?

After ten years of war, there have been a number of cultural blunders made, which were tactically insignificant but strategically important – generally in the negative. This was something I thought about a lot while attending college.

Part of the Truman Scholarship application requires a ‘policy proposal.’ The candidate is required to identify a problem in the world, recommend a proposal to remedy the problem, and discuss the major challenges to implementing the policy. I wrote my proposal on instituting a Peace Corps-like cultural immersion program for members of the military most likely to come into contact with “other” cultures.

I wrote this proposal in the ‘aspirational tense.’ That is, I’m not sure that something like this could ever really be implemented and scaled up to a level that would make it efficient or worthwhile to pursue. While immersion in another culture would certainly provide soldiers with a better understanding of that culture, I also believe that simply doing the right thing and showing respect to other people (and other cultures) would be just as good. Still, I’ll copy and paste the proposal below to put it out there as a thinking point. Also, I’m aware that there are major holes in the entire proposal. The application required the proposal to fit a prescribed word length, which meant getting down the idea without nailing everything down.

I’d be more than happy to talk about the proposal in the comments.

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To: Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Subject: Cultural and Linguistic training for the military

Problem:

Relations between the United States and the people of the Middle East are dangerously strained.  Despite massive military efforts, we have failed to adequately befriend the Middle Eastern people.  According to the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center, 83% of the Middle Eastern public holds an “unfavorable view” of the US, with 80% of these participants indicating that their attitudes towards the US are based on US policy, not American values (1).  Pew Global Attitude surveys in the Middle East show that opinions toward “American people” are significantly more favorable than opinions toward just “America” (2).  These statistics confirm that our efforts are misguided.  The impending shift in emphasis from “hard” power to “smart” power represents a major change in US foreign policy (3).  Still, our military presence in the Middle East will remain substantial for the foreseeable future.  The changing nature of warfare requires a military that is not just culturally sensitive, but views cultural understanding as essential to mission success (4).  The Officer Corps is receiving enhanced cultural training, but the NCO Corps — the backbone of our military — is not.  Our “strategic sergeants” need the cultural training that will empower them to make the tactical decisions that have strategic implications.

__

Proposal:

The US already has the institutions necessary to prepare our military for close encounters with people from other cultures.  The Peace Corps prepares its volunteers for cultural integration through immersion using a combination of home-stay programs, in-class instruction, and language familiarization courses.  These programs are comprehensive and effective.  This model should be applied to the NCO Corps of the US military.  The huge cultural gap that exists between the US and the Muslim world requires intensive cultural exposure beyond familiarization and sensitivity training.  Ideally, every service member would have the opportunity to receive the type of in-depth cultural training required to achieve understanding. Realistically, having 1 or 2 soldiers per platoon (approx. 35 soldiers) receive this training would represent a major step forward.  A typical cultural training program lasts about 8 weeks — about the same time as US Army Ranger School.  Integrating this training into the NCO education system ensures that our small unit leaders on the ground will have the cultural knowledge required to make the hard decisions being asked of them now.  To test this, I propose we form a pilot program immediately with a unit scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the near-term.

Major Obstacles:

Implementing enhanced cultural training may see resistance from leaders in the Department of Defense who view cultural training as a distraction from the core mission of the military — winning wars.  On a practical level, military leaders may argue that sending off junior leaders to receive cultural training removes them from their traditional jobs, which may undermine unit readiness.  Additionally, the amount of time required to achieve adequate cultural training may seem extensive to some leaders. Despite these concerns, the US military stands to benefit from implementing this policy.

References:

  1. Telhami, Shibley.  “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll.”  Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.  14 Apr. 2008.  <http://www.brookings.edu/events/2008/0414_middle_east.aspx>
  2. “Global Unease with Major World Powers.” The Pew Global Attitudes Project. 27 Jun. 2007.  <http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf>
  3. Clinton, Hilary.  “Statement of Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton Nominee for Secretary of State.”  Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  13 Jan. 2009.  <http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/ClintonTestimony090113a.pdf>
  4. “FM 3.24 Counterinsurgency.”  Department of the Army.  Dec. 2006. <http://www.usgcoin.org/library/doctrine/COIN-FM3-24.pdf>

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The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship

I wrote a short OpEd that appeared in the Arizona Republic over the weekend about my experience as a Tillman Military Scholar.

I was able to study in Egypt because of a scholarship I received from the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2009. Studying in Egypt was the defining experience of my undergraduate education and prepared me well for what I would face in graduate school – especially in terms of field work for my dissertation. The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship will be taking applications for its next batch of scholars between February 13th and March 16. If you are a veteran, service member, or spouse of one and are interested in the scholarship, you should strongly consider applying.

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College Success: Leveraging Your Vet Cred

Be Exotic

As Veterans, we hold a powerful tool to employ on our quest for a first-rate education: our stories.

Our experience in the Armed Forces makes us different from the average student. In the words of a scholarship advisor and friend, we are “exotic.” There’s no getting around this fact. In a country where less than one-percent of the population serves, we represent a tiny portion of society, and people are curious about us. This curiosity can be used to our benefit to help us get the best education possible.

Over the past five years, I have employed my military experience to great effect, not on my resumé, but in personal statements and essays. As a result, I have been able to augment my education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill in a variety of ways, such as pursuing my graduate degree in London. To be blunt, I’ve used my military experience to my advantage. And you can, too.

It’s Not Cheap or Dishonorable

At this point, I know there are some Veterans who will read this and think “I don’t feel comfortable using the story of my service for personal gain.” I understand that sentiment, because at one time I felt the same way.

I got out of the Army in 2006 and went straight to community college. As an older student who deployed twice to Iraq, I wasn’t interested in student life or anything that would distract me from my ultimate goal–getting my degree and getting on with life. I walked briskly between classes with my head down, ignoring students around me. I chose not to seek out other veterans on campus–there were many–out of a fear of somehow getting sucked back into the world I had just left. I was in college for a new and different experience.

When I transferred to the City College of New York (CCNY) in 2008, I began to apply for scholarships and fellowships. Without fail, these required personal statements or essays describing leadership challenges, organizational experiences, or service stories. At first, I refused to write anything about my military service, because I felt that it would be dishonorable to do so, or it would be cheap. I thought that if I was going to be successful, it would be of my own accord and academic record–not because I had war stories.

The truth is though, for those of us who joined shortly after high school, without our military experience, there really isn’t much else to write about.

Thankfully, I had a number of excellent mentors at CCNY who strongly encouraged me to include my military experience in my applications. After much wrangling, I relented. Not only did I begin to include my military experience, but I highlighted it.

For most of us, our military service is the defining experience of our lives. To omit that is doing an injustice to ourselves, and placing us at a disadvantage. Our service should not be omitted, but celebrated. The things we have done and achieved are often incredible, and reflect well on both ourselves and the Armed Forces. Why hide that?

Embracing my military experience not only led me to academic success, it also forced me to pay attention to student Veteran issues on campus and find ways to get involved in veterans advocacy. With a group of other City College Veterans, we started the City College Veterans Association–an advocacy and social club for Veterans on campus. Having a community of Veterans on campus that encourages one another and shares stories builds confidence, and makes owning the Veteran identity easier–and a lot more fun!

Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures

There are a few things to keep in mind when leaning on military experience in academic settings.

1. Keep it clean. “No shit, there I was…” is a great way to start a story with buddies at the bar, but doesn’t work well on a personal statement. Also, unless it is absolutely necessary, leave out the blood and gore.

2. Highlight leadership. Enlisted or officer, most of us have served in leadership positions at some point during our military careers. Good leaders know that it’s not just about telling people what to do. Stories about complex leadership challenges while serving stand out.

3. Fight stereotypes. Most Veterans I know are extremely thoughtful and have very complex ideas on the nature of war and military service. This surprises a lot of people. Find stories that demonstrate this.

4. Be a story teller. People love stories, and Veterans have the best. When you get an opportunity to share your story, think of it as an opportunity to sharpen it, and tell it better (without embellishing, of course!).

5. Know when to reveal, and when to conceal. Sometimes a military story just isn’t appropriate or doesn’t fit. Don’t force it.

Scholarships

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an amazing benefit, but it doesn’t do everything for everyone. Here are links to some scholarship programs where military stories can be leveraged:

And here’s a link to a comprehensive list, courtesy of CUNY.

Good luck!

This was originally posted at VAntage Point, the VA’s blog on June 21, 2011.

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