There is a lot of skepticism and finger-pointing aimed at the VA these days, some legitimate concerns and others just incessant complaining. Regardless of your thoughts on the VA, the GI Bill is a great program that allows you to get a free education, and gets you paid in the process—and coming from someone who has utilized the GI Bill in the most expensive place to live in America as well as an average city, the pay is plenty to get by (though I’m not sure if that applies if you have kids). Coming out of college with little to no debt puts you ahead of countless young Americans who might spend 5-10 years just cleaning the slate before they can actually start pursuing their dreams.

I loved my college experience, and took advantage of it as well as I could. Here are some tips for those considering the same route:

 

Realize that college might not be the right option for you.

I’m a huge proponent of college, but it’s not for everyone. Ideally, you figure that out before hitting the books and suffering through lectures, but it might not occur to you for a while and that’s fine. Community college is a great way to get a practical education that can directly transfer to making some money through a specific trade, but maybe even that won’t quite do it for you. Everyone is different, and the pursuit of self-knowledge is a life-long effort. People just have to try things out, adapt and overcome.

I wouldn’t have known whether or not the military was “for me,” and I would have never known unless I left my comfort zone and tried it out.

With that said, if you start reading my stuff you’ll quickly learn how much I love formal education and wish that more people took advantage of it.

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Know and understand how the GI Bill works.

My smarter 3/75 buddy and I on my first day of school after the Army.

This is a tricky one, since you aren’t going to get a whole lot of help from the government in this regard. There are dry power-point programs during the ETS process that can help a little (arguably), but for the most part you just have to figure it out for yourself—after all, you’re a big boy/girl now, the military isn’t holding your hand every step of the way, nor should they. When it comes to the ins and outs of this sort of thing, I’m not a very smart person so I didn’t receive the first few forms in regards to the GI Bill and automatically understand every word on the page—I just saw a big block of text, grids and numbers and was like, “Okay, do I get to do college now?”

However, I am at least smart enough to surround myself with intelligent friends. Find someone and have them sit down with you and go through, step by step, how it works. Ask them things like what the differences between the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post 9/11 GI Bill are, what the Yellow Ribbon program is, or what a COE is. Of course, you might not know what questions to ask at first, but if there is a process in your school, or a paper you receive, or even a single term you don’t understand, ask about it. Keep that smart friend on speed dial.

 

Know what you’re there for.

Plans can only be considered flexible, open for adjustment and alterations—so long as they exist in the first place. I’ve had a million plans, be it with my career in writing, film or other ventures, and none of them look anything like the original plan I had, but I have always worked within the framework of my existing ideas. I move forward on the path that I’m on, and if I see better opportunities along the way that get me to my goals faster, I hop on over to those.

You can’t climb a ladder to success if you don’t know what ladder to climb, and college is no different. Figure out what field you want to try out—maybe an elective will catch your eye and you’ll switch your majors. Maybe you’ll realize that college isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll finish your degree and realize that you need an internship before you can realistically get a position worth your time.

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The next point may come in some contrast to this one, but they both still stand.

 

You’re there to learn, not just to get a degree—otherwise it really will be a big waste of time, all in the name of one piece of paper.

This is where I often get in arguments with other veterans in school, and yes you don’t need to learn Spanish if you want to be an English teacher or an engineer. But the reality is that you’re there, you have to spend countless hours in classes and doing homework, so why not take advantage of it? You can join the Army and just “get by” as the resident dirtbag, or you can maximize the situation you’re in, for better or for worse.

I was that nerd that soaked up all the information I could in any class I found myself in, whether it was a core class that reflected my passion or some lame elective that I didn’t even want to take in the first place. If I was in the middle of a basic level anthropology course, you bet your ass I was going to treat it like I was some budding anthropologist.

I don’t like wasting my time and the reality was that I was in school, so I chose to get as much out of every minute as I could.

 

Realize that you have to do your private time again.

This is probably one of the most important points of advice for newly minted veterans, regardless of whether or not they go to college. The college professors, students and everyday civilian might be impressed with your military service, but it doesn’t help you practically.

You’re not in the military anymore, which means you’re at the bottom of the ladder again—it’s a harsh reality you need to understand. The skills you learned in the military are likely not directly transferable to civilian careers (especially if you were a shooter like me), and it will take a while before those other, more important qualities are realized and appreciated.

Think of it like this: if you came into the military with a college degree, it might help a bit (especially during promotion time) but at the end of the day it’s not going to help you. You’ll get a lot further if you shut up, listen to your team leader and drive forward. Similarly, in school (or your career), you’re the new guy. You’re a private again. Shut up, listen and drive forward.

Danny Alvarez with some compelling advice on the subject:

 

Take a humble pill and don’t expect these kids to have the same experiences that you do.

I don’t know how many times I’ve run into veterans at school that live to look down on all the other kids around them, like they were some beacon of wisdom and intelligence just out of high school. It always reminded me of an 8th grader laughing at how immature 4th graders are. We all have a lot to learn still, and just because you did a few years in the Army doesn’t mean you’re the Obi-Wan Kenobi of wisdom and strength (and you’re certainly not if you don’t embody his patience and humility). No one made me facepalm in college more than my fellow veterans, simply because I hold them to a much higher standard than I do some confused teenager who just left their hometown for the first time.

“Roger that, mom! Just here with a bunch of losers that I’m way cooler than.” | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marines

 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.