When service members finish their time in the military, they have to learn how to adjust to civilian life.
And for some that means hitting the books and tightening the backpack straps.
“Every veteran has a different experience or ability adjusting back to civilian life,” said Air Force veteran David Beck. “One thing that is often overlooked is just how different the two lifestyles are between military and civilian life.”
Beck is one of the millions of veterans who have taken advantage of military educational incentives, like the G.I. Bill, to continue their education. The G.I. Bill is a military program that helps veterans to pay for tuition, books, and housing for their education, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran affairs.
A study from the US Accountability Office showed that in 2014 alone, Virginia provided $10.8 billion in benefits through the G.I. program. In this past year, the national student debt reached more than $1 trillion but the G.I. Bill has helped veterans start their new lives, and finish their education, almost debt-free.
In the dental hygiene program at Thomas Nelson Community College, Beck said he has been able to use those incentives to build greater opportunities for success that he might not have had otherwise.
“The military incentives, more specifically, the G.I. Bill, has single-handedly afforded me the luxury of being able to go back to college,” Beck said. “I hear horror stories of students taking out massive loans to be able to afford education…(it) is a great privilege for me.”
The money from the program goes into helping veterans find new careers and continue their education, said Toni N. Gay, a veteran of the Coast Guard.
But going back to college isn’t as easy for a veteran as it might be for the typical freshman on a college campus.
For Gay the experience was jarring at first, especially because she had been involved in educational programs during her service that were far different.
“I found it really isolating for me,” Gay said. “I was surrounded by a lot of nice people and people who wanted to be helpful, but they didn’t really know some of the things I had gone through.”
Gay is getting her doctorate of education from William & Mary and when she first started, she said the programs for veteran students weren’t as robust as they are now. But having that network of commonality between peers is something that can change a student veteran’s experience. This is something Beck agrees with.
“It is crucial for schools to have clubs (for) student veterans, because for me personally, I want to find people who I can connect with, who understand where I’ve been and how I think,” Beck said.
But the military experience can also provide a helpful set of skills that other students might not have, Gay said. Gay’s 25 years in the service provided her with the ability to learn different leadership, problem-solving and social skills.
Gay spent a lot of time working in military journalism and photography as well as traveling and eventually becoming an O5, or commander, in the Coast Guard. These are tools she took to the classroom when she came back to student life.
The veteran student experience in Williamsburg is one that is constantly improving and growing. As more veterans enroll in colleges each year, students like Beck and Gay know the privilege it is to have access to continuing education.
“I believe in constantly challenging yourself,” Beck said. “Education is one way to further broaden your value when employers (and) companies are making decisions on your future.”