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 so again post-butchering).
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 and 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, but in his absence, I found that I had 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.
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 in, I still managed to complete my bachelor’s degree in just two and a half years, get invited to join a number of honor societies, and have “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.
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, to establish positions, and to defend them from scrutiny. I wanted an excuse to read stuff I would have otherwise dismissed as boring. 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 went from a Marine football player and MMA fighter to a card-carrying nerd that fast.
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.
Veterans all too often tend to think of college as a training requirement for promotion. But out here in the real world, things are a lot more complex than that. There are no roadmaps to success; the path is unique to everyone. I can promise you that today, had I chosen plumbing instead of writing, my family would live in a bigger house and I could have skipped writing about a thousand term papers. Had I devoted the same number of years to construction as I had to college, I could be a comfortable machine operator now, earning a steady union paycheck and building toward my retirement. If I’d become an electrician’s apprentice instead of a miserable HR guy, I might now own my own business and maybe I’d get to spend more time with my kid. The thing is, none of those paths were quite right for me — but they might be for the next guy.
So is college worth it? In my opinion, it depends on what it costs you. If you have the GI Bill to lean on, it is absolutely worth it but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. If you’re a closeted nerd like I was, it might be a real revelation for you. But even if you’re not, college has a habit of exposing you to beliefs, concepts, ideas, and people that you might otherwise ignore, avoid, or never even realize existed. College is where I found myself squaring off with young idealists that know the world should be better and old cynics that think it’s a lost cause. College is where I found my beliefs under attack and learned that some weren’t strong enough to withstand scrutiny. College helped me develop an understanding of a world I’d already seen over the barrel of a rifle and from the deck of ships.
But if you don’t have the GI Bill to lean on I’m the first to admit that you should think hard about how you want to spend your time and money. If your goal is to develop an academic perspective so you can sit around dimly lit tables and argue with guys like me about the South China Sea, while we drink cheap scotch and talk about how much better the booze will be when we land a book deal, you’re the sort of dummy I could really hang out with. But if your goal is to own a boat, pay off your home, and provide for your family then you can do that just as well — if not better — with vocational training at a school that specializes in a specific career field. My generation grew up thinking there was shame in getting your hands dirty. But from my vantage point at this desk, the real shame would be going through life with your hands clean.
College isn’t for everyone, but it can benefit anyone. The question shouldn’t really be “is college worth it?” but rather, “is college worth it for me?” A diploma can unlock a lot of doors for your future — but let’s be honest with each other, so can spending a few years learning how to be a locksmith.
This article was written by Alex Hollings in 2019.