I joined the Army in 2006 with the goal of getting out. That might sound strange, but in 2004, while living in my car in San Diego I’d made a 10-year plan. I had a pathway in mind to where I wanted to be at the end of my service. Part of my plan was to be strategic about using my GI-Bill. I wanted to maximize how I used it in conjunction with tuition assistance.
Here were my goals at the time:
1) I wanted to learn another language.
2) I wanted to get a degree.
3) I wanted to travel outside of the United States.
4) I wanted to end up working for the United Nations.
Joining the Army was one effective method to do all of these things. I chose an MOS that was likely to be assigned overseas and I enlisted. It wasn’t quite that straightforward, but for this article let’s pretend it was. I was a Quartermaster and, later in my career, a Chemical Equipment Repairer. For my first duty station, I was assigned to a unit in Korea. Item 3 marked off the goal list! When I arrived, I signed up for college classes and I started a course on elementary Korean as well.
Over my tour, I chose to reenlist, and ended up serving on Active Duty for five and a half years. I moved to Germany, deployed to Iraq, and traveled a lot of Europe while stationed there. Goal #3 knocked out of the park! What I didn’t do was spend as much time as I would have liked actively studying another language. I learned some German, and some Korean, but not enough to get me by outside of the brewery or a restaurant. When I was planning to leave the Army, the only thing on my mind was where I would go to school. School had been the plan from day 1, and I needed to find the most effective way to get to my goal.
I evaluated various locations and degrees. In the end, I chose a school in the Hudson Valley of New York because it was noted as “Military Friendly” by GI Jobs magazine, it was near friends, my wife liked the general region, and they were close enough to New York City that I could consider the option of getting an internship at the United Nations while I was there. They also had a 5-year Bachelor’s and Master’s of Public Administration (BA/MPA) program and I thought it would be an effective use of my GI-Bill to get both degrees in one fell swoop.
Marist, the school I attended, allowed me to take classes all year round. This kept the BAH flowing. I finished my BA in 2 years. While there, I decided that instead of getting the MPA, I would pursue a Master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. I counted out the exact number of days of each term and realized I would have 3 days left on my GI Bill if I did my program there. It took me two more years, just squeaking just in with those 3 days left, and I had a BA and an MA paid for by the Post 9-11 GI-Bill.
How can you use your GI-Bill with purpose?
1) Choose a degree that leads to a career you want. Know what career you want before you attend school. I know it looks tempting to get the BAH and take random classes that don’t mean anything to you in the long run. Don’t fall to that temptation. If you have to, go to a Community College for 2 years to complete your general education classes, but you should always be considering what you are going to do with a specific degree.
2) Choose a school that allows you to go to classes as much as you are capable. If you can take 6 classes per semester, do it. If 4 is better for your school-life balance, do that. But remember, particularly with your undergraduate degree, it may be more economical to take more classes. Check and see how your college/university charges you per credit. If they charge the same for 12 credits as 18, take 18 credits. It might be hard, but you will be getting the best value. Of course, only take on a course load that you can successfully handle.
3) Plan it all out. Look at what the schedule for each semester is. The GI Bill is pro-rated down to the day. If you have even one day left, you will also qualify for the entire semester after, including BAH. By planning this, you’ll be able to get more out of your GI Bill. Also, the BAH is lower for an online program, but if the degree gives you something of benefit, it might be worth it to take a lower BAH rate. Stay focused on the long-term plan.
4) Choose a school based on the professors and the network they offer you. This is not GI Bill specific, but your professors and fellow-students will be your network in the future. Look at alumni, look at the research professors you’ll be taking classes from, look at who works for the school in a consulting or a part-time capacity. These relationships will be super important to you in the future. Utilize them.
5) Don’t be afraid to change direction and re-plan everything. I did this in my first semester of undergrad. The MPA program wasn’t going to be a great degree for me. My professors saved me by directing me toward a degree that would get me where I wanted to go. That being said, my last semester of graduate school, I changed my mind on what I wanted to do with my life. I am creating my own peace-building business instead of going to work for the UN. I have all the skills for this from my two degrees, and it fits my overall interests better.
6) Be active in planning, preparing, and choosing all aspects of your degree path. This is part of planning your schedule, but it’s also about taking classes that will help you in your career. Don’t take a math class that you don’t need. Don’t take a gym class just to fill credits. Take classes that teach you things that you will use.
Don’t let your GI-Bill go to waste. Use it with a purpose, and you’ll get more than your money’s worth.