Whether you are returning to school after military service or enrolling for the first time with civilian career goals in mind, there's a lot to figure out before you start your first class.
I not only made the transition myself, from active duty to full-time student, but also assisted students in my first-year seminar courses beginning their academic journeys a world away from their most recent experiences. While it will be up to you to start the conversations, ask questions, and make the connections, there are many resources available specifically designed to serve your needs as a veteran pursing educational goals.
Understand Your Benefits
If you are eligible for the GI Bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides information online to get you started. There are multiple steps involved in applying and receiving the financial assistance you've earned, so take some time to review the process and find out what's involved in advance.
Identify the State and Regional VA offices located near you. Advisors at these centers are available to answer your questions about a range of benefits and programs designed to assist you with education and employment after you leave active service.
Choose a Program
You've got more options available than ever before these days, including online programs, which attract veterans and non-veterans alike due to the convenience of online delivery and the scheduling flexibility it can afford.
The VA's "Factors to Consider When Choosing a School" reminds us: "Don't let the pretty recruitment material or other advertising be your only reference." Your selection of an online program should be similar to that of other students including creation of a comparison checklist of factors related to affordability, accreditation, marketability, academic preparation, student support services, and program requirements.
Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) is another resource available to help you identify programs that may meet your needs. A consortium of more than 1,900 institutional members, SOC provides information for each member school that includes options for credit transfer and prior learning assessment.
Make the Transition
NPR recently reported that the Post-9/11 GI Bill "has helped 860,000 vets go to school" since 2009. As the number of veterans entering higher education increases, you're likely to find other vets in your classes, as well as new services and "vets centers" available to assist with the transition.
Andrew Hibel of HigherEdJobs.com notes that "military students and veterans are some of the best and brightest on campus. They often make the highest quality students because of their maturity, dedication, and military training. However, many experience challenges in adjusting from military life to campus life."
Student Veterans of America (SVA) is a non-profit organization with a mission "to provide military veterans with resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and post-graduation." From navigating policies and procedures to providing peer-to-peer support, you can find local chapters, as well as resources online. Kaplan University's Student Military Association is a chapter of SVA and an example of how this group serves online students.
You'll also find an increasing number of advisors and other institution-based services that are experienced in processing the required benefits paperwork and addressing a variety of issues specific to military students. Veterans services offices go by many names, like Troy University's brand new "Troy for Troops Center," but can be found both online and on ground to connect you with other veterans at your school and the resources you need to successfully complete your academic program.
Apply Your Skills
Translating military experience for civilian employers has been a challenge for years, and translating it for academic credit isn't any easier. But there are new methods on the horizon designed to help you with career direction as well as course work.
BadgesforVets.org is a collaborative project led by the HASTAC initiative working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Mozilla. It's free to use and requires account registration. Still in the early stages, it already allows you to create your own badge folder based on your military branch of service and occupational specialty. There is some customization available – you can add military training and collateral duties. Registration confirmation also makes your badge profile searchable by prospective employers.
Your military experience is not lost in the classroom, either. Being a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine means continuous preparation through training, skill development, and learning on-the-job. And from time management to team building, the professional experience you've gained working in high-stress, fast-paced environments will be important as you become a successful student. Embrace your new role as an online learner and make the most of the opportunities ahead.
Image credit: olando7, Flickr, CC:BY