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Vets in Higher Education: Four Stories to Inspire Your Pursuit of a Degree
by Heidi Lynn Russell, Contributing Editor

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Thinking of going back to school, but not sure how you’ll fit in socially or fare academically in English Composition 101?

Here are the stories of four veterans who not only returned to campus, but successfully worked to overcome a myriad of challenges, from wartime wounds that hindered their progress, to failed classes, to readjusting to a younger generation on campus. Their bottom-line message to other veterans: Sure, university life can be a stark contrast to military culture, but with hard work, outside-the-box thinking, regular communication with advisors and dogged determination, a degree is attainable - and so is a fulfilling career after you’ve received your diploma.

Military Service Helps  You Be A Better StudentNick Lawless:

Fighting Back, in Spite of His Back

Before cracking a book at Binghamton University in January 2010, Army PFC Nick Lawless had already faced two significant hurdles that could have impeded his academic goals: He had a broken back from an Army injury, and he was dealing with depression and anxiety over only serving two years in the Army because of the back injury.

“I was a great soldier and heard that all the time, but my back didn’t let me do it,” he says.

He’d tried to re-imagine a new life and latched onto a dream of becoming a zoologist, but even that dream was dashed because of the back injury. Plus, campus life presented its own challenges.

“I definitely felt out of place. I was 25-26 years old, walking with a cane.” Lawless recalls. He failed a class during his first semester, which fueled his discouragement even more.

Then things turned around. After working with the Career Development Center at Binghamton, along with the TRIO/Veteran Office, Lawless decided to pursue a political science degree. During the next two years, he interned with Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s office in Binghamton every week, overloaded on courses every semester, took a Certificate of Terrorism Studies at American Military University and graduated in May 2012.

From there, he landed a temporary position in Washington, D.C. as program assistant for The Washington Center (TWC). He managed the National Political Conventions Seminar with a small team and was ultimately promoted to fieldwork manager before heading to Tampa, Fla., for the Republican National Convention (and then the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.). He worked with Fox News, CNN and state political parties to find volunteer positions for the 300-plus students attending the program. He worked for TWC full time for more than a year.

Lawless then landed a job as program analyst in the General Services Administration. He was invited to join the two-year Emerging Leaders Program in July 2013. He rotates through various program offices throughout GSA and Federal Acquisition Service to gain knowledge about GSA, government acquisitions and procurement. Lawless is also working to earn a master’s degree in international relations and conflict resolution at American Military University, with a target graduation of March 2015.

His advice? “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s cliché, but everybody has their own issues, and the best way to get through to them is to ask for help. Most of the time, 99 percent of my time on campus, I could approach any professor and talk about a situation if I was having problems.”

Military Service Helps  You Be A Better StudentAustin Capers:

Attaining the Dream of an FSU Degree

After serving five years of active duty in the Army, losing friends and suffering a knee injury during an Iraq deployment, Army SGT Austin Capers learned perseverance with a focus on “there’s no way I won’t succeed.”

“Plus with all the tools available, no matter what school you choose, Veterans Affairs (VA) help is available in all forms - counseling, tutors, or anything you need. You just have to know where to look,” he says. “On your campus, there should be a Veterans Affairs Administrator Office. If there isn’t, there should be, so contact someone at the VA to tell them.”

A native of Jupiter, Fla., Capers grew up around boats, so when he enlisted, he was excited to find out the Army had watercraft operators. He worked on army boats out of Fort Eustis, Va., and deployed in 2005 on an Army logistics support vessel. “We were in the Persian Gulf six months transporting battle-damaged equipment,” he says. After his return, he volunteered to be a gun truck commander in Iraq, providing security for convoys for 15 months, between 2007 and 2008.

Near the end of his deployment, there was a crash and his convoy was involved. He went through two ACL (Anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction surgeries.

During recovery, he was given a choice between a job at Fort Eustis or enrolling in school. He completed two semesters at Virginia Commonwealth, got out of the Army in 2009 and decided to pursue a lifelong dream to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. But because of his grades at VC, he had to attend Tallahassee Community College for two years before enrolling at FSU.

He received an associate degree in 2011 and transferred to FSU to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

“Once on campus, I volunteered to take part in a research course for learning about veterans transitioning to student life,” Capers says. “I met 10 to 15 veterans from different branches. We got to know each other well. I became a part of the FSU Collegiate Veterans Association, which is a chapter of Student Veterans of America. Then I became vice president and lobbied for veteran issues.”

He also worked part time his entire time at FSU, managing a Po’ Boys restaurant, got married and now has a baby daughter. He graduated in August 2013 with a social sciences degree.

Today, Capers works in sales and is a production manager at Scientific Instruments, a cryogenic technology company. He also is a participant in the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities, which is helping him with a business plan to launch an idea. He is considering pursuing an MBA.

“I’m the first boy in my family to graduate from college. I was never a good student at all. I never did well in education,” Capers says. “To have a degree, I don’t care what it’s in, but it says, ‘Bachelor’s at FSU,’ and that was my dream.”

 

Military Service Helps  You Be A Better StudentRonald (Jay) Hagstrom:

Boosted Confidence from an Essay Contest

He may still just be a freshman at Franklin Pierce University, but Marine Cpl Ronald (Jay) Hagstrom has already garnered national attention.

This May, Hagstrom was a “Powerful Voice” winner for the Yes! Magazine national student writing competition. More than 1,000 students competed, and there were three winners in the Powerful Voice category. The professor of his first-year composition class, Molly Badrawy, encouraged him to submit the essay, which is the story of his service and some of the often unexpressed challenges of returning to civilian life.

Winning the contest has given Hagstrom a shot in the arm as he pursues his full-time bachelor’s in business management. “I was concerned when I signed up for college, because I struggled in high school, especially in writing and reading. But I’ve had a positive year in writing class, with positive feedback. I feel like I’ll be able to handle it,” he says.

Hagstrom served in the Marine Reserves from 2004-2012 and was deployed to Iraq in 2009-2010. He now lives in his hometown of Jaffrey with his wife and two young children. He is working full-time as a validation engineering technician in the Raw Material Validation Group at EMD Millipore. The plant makes filters for prescription medication companies.

“My original goal was to get an engineering position, but I decided the major in business management gives me more options,” he says, adding that he expects to graduate in 2017.

“I got some credits transferred from the Marines, so it took care of elective credits, plus I’m taking summer classes and online classes. I’m doing four classes per semester,” he says.

He says his military service helps you be a better student. “I had time to live life and know what’s important. I never would have survived in college if I went right after high school; I wouldn’t have taken it seriously.”

Franklin Pierce is a small school with class sizes that average about 20 students.

“Having been in the military with so much structure, I know I can use that experience to my benefit,” he says. If I could be in the military and get through boot camp, I can go back to school. I just have to stick with it now. I have to keep pushing to get positive results.”

(Read Hagstrom’s winning essay here: http://www.yesmagazine.org/for-teachers/essay-bank/winter-2014/winter-2014-powerful-voice-winner-jay-hagstrom.)

 

Military Service Helps  You Be A Better StudentLogan Potskowski:

An English Major with an Eye on Law Enforcement

Army SGT First Class Logan M. Potskowski has returned to Norwich University after a long hiatus.

He’d attended Norwich as a cadet from 1998 through 2001. He left school after his junior year to enlist in the Army as an infantryman. During his career, he served in a variety of roles, including four years on a Special Response Team responsible for hostage rescue, VIP protection and special threat situations. He spent two years as a Drill Sergeant and has deployed to the Middle East and Asia. His final tour was in East Asia working primarily in an anti-terrorism role. He transitioned from active duty in January 2013, and returned to Norwich to finish his degree. He currently serves in the National Guard as an Infantry Section Sergeant in a Reconnaissance Troop.

And now, he’s majoring in English.

“I was a business major at first for a year-and-a-half. Then I took English electives as part of the curriculum, and it clicked a lot more with me,” Potskowski says. “I decided I was better at writing an essay than being a manager of finance.”

He wants to stay in Vermont and work in law enforcement after he graduates in May 2015.

He found that Norwich was a different place than he remembered - but he was the one who had changed.

“It was a little bit of a culture shock my first semester back. Kids today are so much smarter than I was when I was here before,” he says. “They have a 24-hour news cycles and internet access. They’re like a fire hose of information and so much smarter. I took an international relations class, and they were talking about Tiananmen Square, and they hadn’t been born yet when it happened, but they knew more about it than I did. I like being back. I’m energized,” he says.

Potskowski started the application process to return to school while serving duty in Korea. Classes started in January, and he had to complete financial paperwork before getting back to the States.

“But it was painless with the G.I. Bill. I didn’t have to wait a long time for approval. Everything was handled in Korea, and there was no friction. When I came back, I had a week off, then enrolled in classes, and everything was set,” he says.

Norwich has an online school of graduate studies, so Potskowski is considering a master’s in public administration.

“I think they treat me just like any other student and I appreciate that,” he says.

 

Heidi Lynn Russell writes about employment and business issues.

 

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