“I will not allow you to be stupid! Not signing up for G.I. Bill benefits isn’t even an option for you, you bunch of little ostrich goobers,” our company commander told every member of Bravo 146 during our first week of Coast Guard boot camp.
He of course said this with a glare that left no other option—something only company commanders themselves, or anyone who has been subjected to their gaze, would understand. Now, while I still have no idea was an ‘ostrich goober’ is (Google doesn’t even know), his words prompted every single member of our company to sign their G.I. Bill paperwork without hesitation.
Without him, I doubt I would have signed anything (G.I. Bill benefits cost $100 a paycheck for the first year — a large sum of money when you’re 18 years old, not overly financially savvy, not interested in college, and highly stressed). But not being given the option was probably one of the best things he did for me.
I ended up in the military partially because, throughout high school, I was at least in one way, shape or, form told I wasn’t ‘college material.’ Not many people knew I was watching my father battle cancer throughout the entirety of my freshman through junior years. It was a situation that didn’t really allow me to focus on my studies, and everything around me affirmed the notion I wasn’t ready for college—teachers’ words, friends enrolling in universities. I believed I didn’t have a shot because of below-average grades, low confidence in my academic ability, no true vision of what I wanted for my future. You know, a proverbial grab bag of issues. And, with all of that in tow, I graduated in 1994 with a high school diploma that meant very little to me, an intense insecurity regarding my capacity to learn, a self-depreciating sense of humor (particularly regarding my future), and the knowledge that I would never go to college.
Looking at recent data on the military community, my guess is that, for one reason or another, many active duty enlisted personnel have somewhat similar views regarding college. As of 2014, an astounding 77% of enlisted personnel have less than a bachelor’s degree, only 12.6% have a bachelor’s, and 8.1% have attained an advanced degree.
That data is consistent with my experience in the Coast Guard. As an enlisted member, I could count on one hand the number of people I knew who had a college degree, or were even pursuing college. College was something other people did, which is why it was weird that, around year five of my eight years in the Coast Guard, I had this sudden desire to see what college was like. Once that itch developed, I had to scratch it, prompting me to sign up for an English class at the local community college. A wholly beautiful disaster.
Enrolled in English 101, I pulled up on the first day of class full of excitement and intrigue. I was ready to hit the books and learn how to write a proper sentence. And once I parked, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that… there was no way I was getting out of the car. I sat there, hands literally shaking at the wheel of the car, as every bit of fear and self-doubt I ever had about education and my place in it manifested itself.
Looking back now, 15+ years later, I know the root of that fear. Everything about my world at that time was structured. My friends were other Coast Guardsmen, meaning I knew how to talk to them, what to talk to them about, and what jokes were appropriate. I knew my job well, how to function in it, what to do in the event of an emergency, my duty schedule, when and where to show up. Dressing was even easy for me on a daily basis, with my impeccable knowledge of uniform regulations and care. I was a part of a unique society, and I loved it. It was me.
I believed that, looming in the community college building, was an entirely different society altogether. I felt like in there were nothing but brainiacs and academic prodigies… They would clearly make fun of me. Ostracize me. Make me feel dumb. And really, anyone who wasn’t a genius was most likely a frat boy. And my friends and I joked about frat boys a lot.
In fact, we joked about college a lot because, as can often be the case, you use sarcasm and jokes as a way to feel better about things you’re afraid of. And I was really afraid. In fact, I turned the car around and drove away… three semesters in a row.
Ultimately, I believe a lot of the values I learned in the Coast Guard served to get me into the classroom instead of sitting out front of it. And, as Colorado State University’s Jody Donovan recently highlighted in her blog about celebrating student veterans, those characteristics are, once I stepped into class after signing up for the fourth time, what ended up making me a successful student. Among these, are:
- Strong work ethic and self-discipline
- Goal-focused approach
- Ability to confront complex challenges
- Critical thinking and decision making
- Motivation to learn and put education into practice
- Selfless service
- Maturity and sense of purpose
Thinking back, I absolutely wasn’t college material coming out of high school, but only because it just wasn’t the time for me. I needed to have the opportunity to figure some things out, gain some self-confidence, breathe and set some goals. The military absolutely made me ready to be a student, which allowed me to bring experience, maturity, and goals to the table when I did decide to go back to school. Some students are ready right out of high school, and that’s great… but for me, waiting enriched my college experience, ensuring that I received the maximum value from my G.I. Bill benefits. And once I went, I never looked back. I left the Coast Guard after serving eight years to attend school full-time, working my way toward a master’s degree, which I received in December, 2012.
Having that education has enriched my life immensely, giving me a great career, higher earning potential, a higher level of self-efficacy, increased self-confidence… I sound like a poster. But, long story short, I truly believe education is a viable option for many veterans who may not be thinking about it right now. With online education becoming more and more accessible, veterans don’t have to wait to start earning degrees. There are online resources, military tuition assistance programs, and an endless amount of support networks available. As a colleague of mine, Colonel Greg Marzolf, mentions in this video, the benefits are numerous, whether you’re staying in the service or getting out, and making a good decision up front matters.
And I think he’d agree… don’t be an ostrich goober. If you’re joining the military, sign up for your benefits. If you’re already in it, use them to continue educating yourself.