In a lot of ways, my separation from the Marine Corps was both better and worse than that of most of my peers. Thanks to a laundry list of injuries and five surgeries, I had found myself living for nearly two years in a state of limbo. I couldn’t reenlist because my duty status indicated that I hadn’t been cleared by medical. But I also couldn’t leave the Corps… because my duty status indicated that I hadn’t been cleared by medical. My intent was to stay in. So I worked hard throughout, keeping myself in shape for my opportunity to prove I could still pass the fitness test. (I had pulled off a first-class score before the surgeries, so I was certain I could do so again post-butchering.)

Leaving the Marine Corps

But then came that fateful day when the decision was made for me. I was at the pistol range, hoping that another expert qualification would help to show my continued value to the Corps, when I got the call. Not only was I out, but my separation date was so close; I could clean out my locker immediately to begin terminal leave. It’s hard to look back now and really articulate what I felt: a combination of terror, excitement, relief, and sorrow. In a lot of ways, I had found myself in the Marine Corps — and I was certain that without it, I ran the risk of losing myself once again.

I had applied to a number of schools based on the possibility of being separated. I ultimately chose Framingham State University since it was within commuting distance to where I already lived. Additionally, the administration had been extremely helpful in getting me enrolled despite my uncertain timeline. I had completed my associate’s degree online in the years prior and really didn’t consider myself the college sort. Few people in my family had gone to school at the time and I had already demonstrated a real lack of “give a shit” during my online business courses.

But then something surprising happened. There, in an academic environment full of discussion, debate, and loads of required reading I found myself again. Granted, what I found wasn’t the supremely confident Sergeant Hollings that I’d left behind. Rather, in his absence, I found a pretty decent analytical mind, a knack for breaking down complex issues into simpler chunks, and most importantly a real passion for figuring things out.

I was as surprised as anyone to find out I loved school.

My plan may have been to tread water in college and collect some GI Bill payments until I figured out what to do. But I soon lost sight of that goal and instead focused entirely on my studies. Despite having very few credits transfer- n, I still managed to complete my bachelor’s degree in just two and a half years. I also got invited to join a number of honor societies and had “summa cum laude” written in very fancy writing on my diploma. Not too shabby considering I’d been a grease-covered car parts-slinger with no future to really speak of prior to joining the Corps.

A Transformational Experience?

While working in a terrible HR job, I enrolled in grad school — not really because I was following a clear professional but mostly because I was jonesing for academia. I wanted to be challenged to read new things, establish positions, and defend them from scrutiny. I wanted an excuse to read stuff I would have otherwise dismissed as boring. And I wanted to argue with hippies that didn’t know the world was a tragic mess of violence and selfishness because they hadn’t left their parents’ basements. And I wanted to fight with salty old professors that could only see the violence and selfishness because they’d grown so weary from watching television for 50 plus years. I wanted to change minds and have my mind changed. I very quickly went from a Marine football player and MMA fighter to a card-carrying nerd.

Today, I’m fortunate to work in a job that allows me to keep chasing that fix: that need for discourse, debate, and often, to have my mind changed by strong points presented by others. I am where I am today in many ways thanks to my academic pursuits, but I always stop short of encouraging others to follow in my footsteps. College, it turns out, was the right place for me — but that doesn’t mean it is for everyone.

My communications degrees don’t make me a particularly marketable employee. They’re not industry-specific and without a specialty developed through professional work, many employers see them as generic checks in the degree box. My rate of income didn’t jump dramatically when I finished graduate school and for years I’ve worked alongside talented, brilliant journalists that didn’t attend college at all. They found their way into our industry in their own ways: with hard-fought expertise and a natural ability to communicate. College may have helped me find my way, but it certainly isn’t a requirement in the unusual world of digital media.