As A Vet, Enrolling In Community College Was The Smartest Thing I’ve Ever Done

Air Force Reservist Jon Walters, 35, talks about his experiences with community police relations with his criminal justice classmates at McHenry County College, Nov. 28, 2012.
AP Photo/Northwest Herald, H. Rick Bamman

When I left active duty about a year ago with the hopes of becoming a lawyer, I never thought my path would begin at a community college.

I did well in high school, hold strong standardized tests scores, and even have some college experience. It seemed natural at the time to jump right into a program at a traditional, four-year university.

However, I quickly realized I wasn’t as competitive as I thought. Some mistakes I made at a college before enlisting were holding me back.  

Surprisingly, at my local community college — more so than any other school I spoke to — I found people who understood where I was in my career, where I wanted to be, and were willing to help me plan how to get there.

“College is an adjustment for all new students, but for Veterans who are returning, or beginning college after being deployed to war, it is even more of an adjustment,” Ann Lyons, the coordinator of tutoring services at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, wrote to me in an email. “Germanna values our Veterans, and I like to think that we have created a welcoming environment for them.”

Lyons heads a number of programs targeted toward improving the abilities of students at my school. Those include a math and writing center, providing supplemental instruction in developmental math and English courses, and free tutoring for virtually any course the college offers.

“Our students are of all ages, from all walks of life, and community college faculty are accustomed to teaching a room full of students with varying abilities and needs,” she added.

Although community colleges have the resources for students who need a bit more help, that doesn’t mean community college students don’t have what it takes to make it elsewhere.  

My classes are filled with all kinds of students; folks both far younger and older than me, from all manner of socioeconomic circumstances with countless reasons why community college was the right move for them. Sure there are students right out of high school, but there are also moms and dads planning to return to work, people planning for a career change, senior citizens striving to complete a life goal, and post-9/11 veterans like me. On the surface, if there’s one thing we have in common, it’s that we all share the goal of earning our degrees.

Emerson Ramirez served as a corporal in the Marine Corps and also recently transitioned out of the military to further his education. This combat veteran is a current student at Germanna and prepping for transfer to complete an undergraduate program in cybersecurity.

“The biggest challenge for me is learning how to mingle with other, non-military members, but overall it’s been going well,” said Ramirez in an email to me. “The community college has been everything I expected and more.”

After three aggressive semesters, I am ready to graduate with a strong grade-point average and transfer to another school to finish my bachelor’s degree.  

What’s more, I’ve built invaluable relationships with professors and faculty at my college. Those relationships have helped immensely to identify the best options available and how different programs may shape my professional future. At least in my experience, the myth about community college professors not being as challenging, engaging and thought-provoking as the faculty at a typical university couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Many of our faculty members are involved in research and/or writing publications, but their primary interest in working at a community college is teaching,” said Lyons, who also pointed out the school has many adjunct professors who teach in addition to working full time in their profession.

“These instructors are a wonderful resource for students who are in the process of exploring careers,” she added. “They love to chat with our students about their work, and many of them have provided our students with valuable career advice.”

“Especially in the field that I am going into,” said Ramirez. “I’m learning much more than I knew before.”

And that’s what I’ve found consistently at my community college: an institution focused on ensuring its students are properly prepared for whatever comes next in their careers, regardless.

“We have worked with Veterans who may have been out of school for a while, so they may have forgotten the math they learned years ago,” Lyons said. “Some have endured physical injuries during the war, and they may need additional academic support outside the classroom.”

“The fact that the Developmental Math Department, Veterans Affairs, and Tutoring Services collaborated to assign tutors to MTE Veteran Learning Communities is a clear indicator that we value our Veterans’ presence at Germanna and are sensitive to their learning needs,” she added.

Oh, and community college saved me a bunch of money.

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is like a genie in the bottle. Nestled within and awaiting employment is an amazing benefit that covers tuition, books, even housing to any public (and most private) school in the country. That’s like a full-paid scholarship to anywhere.  

But, education tends to become more expensive as you progress, and since I’m already planning for post-graduate studies, I know it’s going to cost a lot more money than I’ll receive from the VA.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a veteran who lives in New York plans to be a lawyer like I do. She’ll need two years of lower-level studies, two years of upper-level studies, and three years at a law school to reach that goal. Here are her options:

  1. Use the G.I. Bill up front. It covers every penny of her undergraduate studies at The City University of New York, but she’ll have to take loans for law school. At $7,050 a semester, that’s a $42,300 tab.
  2. Use the G.I. Bill last. That means paying out of pocket or through grants for her associate’s program at the community college ($4,800 per year) plus one year at the university ($6,330), but then she’ll finish undergrad and law school totally on Uncle Sam’s dime. That costs her $15,930 of her own money.

By choosing the second option, this veteran saved $26,370 in today’s dollars. That’s the equivalent of getting seven years of education for the price of one year in a post-graduate program.  

To put it another way, that veteran received 266% more benefits by starting at a community college and saving her G.I. Bill until she’d nearly reached her educational goal.

I’ll admit my plans may not be typical and the savings may not be as extreme for someone who isn’t planning on a cost like law school, but Lyons points out that starting at a community college could be the right move for almost anyone.  

“By the same token, if a student doesn't really know what he/she wants to study, it makes sense to enroll in general study courses at a community college,” she said. “With the guaranteed admission agreements, [community] colleges have with Virginia four-year colleges and universities, our students have the opportunity to spend two years exploring various academic disciplines and can transfer to excellent universities to focus on a particular major.”

“That is what I would tell another veteran,” said Ramirez, the Marine veteran. “Attend community college and knock out the general studies, then transfer to a university.”

I’m probably not alone in making this statement: One of the main reasons I enlisted was the fact that I failed out of college right out of high school, mainly because I was severely immature.  

The Marine Corps fixed that and also helped to make me nearly an expert in my occupational specialty, not to mention it equipped me with intangible traits like leadership, determination, and self-reliance.

“The most positive thing I’ve experienced while back in school is that I’m able to use the knowledge and skills the military gave me,” Ramirez said.

And now, no matter what happens, this December I will leave my community college with an associate’s degree in business administration. No one can ever take that away from me.

That creates a peace of mind. Even in the event that life doesn’t go according to plan, and reaching my educational goals is delayed, I now have unquestionable educational backing to marry with military experience.

“Even if a Veteran is not interested in pursuing an Associate’s degree, Workforce courses may enable him/her to earn valuable certifications that will enable him/her to be competitive in the workforce,” Lyons said.

So consider all the options when planning to continue your education. Who would have thought starting at a community college was the smartest thing I could have done.

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

The "suck it up and drive on" mentality permeated our years in the U.S. military and often led us to delay getting both physical and mental health care. As veterans, we now understand that engaging in effective care enables us not just to survive but to thrive. Crucially, the path to mental wellness, like any serious journey, isn't accomplished in a day — and just because you need additional or recurring mental health care doesn't mean your initial treatment failed.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty.

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