Following World War II, one of the best examples of a successful government program was the G.I. Bill. Once passed, thousands of service members returning from war were able to get an education, earn their degrees, start a career and make a great deal more than they would have otherwise. The overall economy benefited from the influx of workers able to earn higher wages and the country, as a whole, benefited not just from the increased economic activity, but from the overall improvement that came with it. The gains for society were exponential.
Fast forward to today and we are in the midst of a new wave of veterans returning from the battlefield, albeit in smaller numbers. Just as they did 70 years ago, our leaders in government and academia have seen fit to provide education benefits to these veterans. There are schools that are taking part in the Yellow Ribbon Program as well, and pick up the remaining costs of education for the veterans. These are all worthy updates to what was such a successful concept at the outset.
Unfortunately, today’s economic and academic marketplace is vastly different and the outlook for these veterans remains decidedly more mixed than our predecessors from two generations ago. I speak as someone who has tried to take full advantage of the G.I.Bill and return to school to better myself and improve my economic prospects. The results have been trying, if I am to be honest.
After returning home from my second tour in Iraq in the summer of 2008, I started my enrollment in New York University’s Stern School of Business to earn my MBA. Many fellow Marines officers I knew at the time had encouraged me to pursue the degree as a way to change careers and enter the corporate world. Lacking an undergraduate degree in business, it was safe to assume this was the best, if not the only, way I could convince the top corporations that I was suitable management material in one of the most competitive cities in the world. When combined with my military leadership experience, it seemed like a natural addition to my resume and one that would bear immediate fruit upon graduation. At least that was the idea.
It was a challenge to transition directly from active duty to the classroom. One minute I was in charge of Marines — responsible for their lives, planning their combat operations — and the next I was doing homework and attending corporate social functions discussing the latest market trends. The change in mindset was definitely a challenge and one that every veteran should be prepared to face.
However, just as we’ve met the challenges of military service, most veterans can overcome any initial difficulties with this transition. The opportunity to meet new people with completely different backgrounds and interests is a great way for veterans to reintegrate into civilian life and broaden their occupational horizons. Likewise, the chance to study new subjects affords veterans the ability to expand their thought process, to break from the strict military life and more fully develop as a well-rounded member of civic society. These are all positive aspects of the education experience.
The disappointing part of the story, at least in my own experience, comes from two very real issues that veterans should be conscious of when planning their post-military career path. First is the idea that you are somehow supposed to be able to figure exactly what you want to study and exactly what career you should pursue right as you leave the military. But how can you know what subjects you will most enjoy and benefit from? How do you adapt those experiences to an educational program and subsequent occupation if you’re still trying to figure things out? What if your experiences in the military changed you? What if you pick the wrong path?
This last question is the one that haunts me. When given the chance to use the G.I. Bill to pick a path, to reorient my life toward a new career, I did not fully appreciate where my interests lay and what was most marketable about my military career. Instead, I pursued a degree in finance that I thought would help me make the most money. I learned, too late, that money comes from being a success, not the other way around. And being a success is predicated on doing something you’re passionate about and love to do.
The lesson here is when deciding to pursue a degree using the G.I. Bill do a thorough self-assessment. Take some time to focus on your true interests as well as the skills and capabilities you developed in the military that can combine with your education to tell a holistic story that employers will gravitate toward and value.
The second and more practical lesson is the debt issue. I attended NYU, a private university in the heart of New York City. I went there because it was one of the top schools for finance and provided an excellent opportunity to be recruited by the top firms on Wall Street. The tuition for such a prestigious school was over $40,000 a year. The G.I. Bill did not cover all of this. The result was graduating with a fancy MBA degree and a mountain of debt.
The lesson: Don’t go into debt to earn your degree. Take classes via a part-time program while you work if you have to. Or pick a program that will not break the bank and that the G.I. Bill will fully cover. Lastly, pick a program, a degree, a career path that you know fits with your personality, your interests and your skills.
I encourage my fellow veterans to take full advantage of these educational programs, but also to do your homework, develop a sound plan, and accomplish your mission just as you used to when in uniform. In short, learn from my mistakes.
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