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Drive On and Leverage Your Education

By Douglas Johnson, Program Manager, Military Training and Evaluations Program, Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES)
Michele Spires, Assistant Vice President, Learning Evaluations, American Council on Education (ACE)
In addition to navigating the many responsibilities you will face after leaving military service, one of the most significant challenges for veterans is understanding and thriving in a new educational environment as a student learner.   Yes!  It’s true, as a military learner you most likely excelled in every area of your specialty but as you transition to a new and equally challenging academic environment, you must use your mission driven skills and experience to leverage your education and “Drive On” toward achieving your education goals.
Why go to school? Some of the most common reasons for going back to school would be to learn a skill or start a new career, maybe you want to increase your earnings potential or maybe you want to be the first in your family to pursue higher education.  Whether you’re seeking a degree, credential, certificate or professional license, education opportunities will put you on the road to success. Regardless of which path you take, you earned educational benefits by serving so take advantage of the opportunity!
Let’s discuss how you can advance your career, follow your dreams, embrace the fears, build a support structure, and inspire others. Here are some tips and testimonials from veterans who have already started their educational journey. 
Advance Your Career
More and more learners are going to college later in life with experience and skills already under their belt. The pandemic has accelerated this trend because millions of Americans had their employment and education plans disrupted.  Many jobs require bachelor’s degrees, and a college credential unlocks economic opportunities that are more resilient against these kinds of disruptions.  
It wasn’t until I became a non-commissioned officer that I realized that the Army’s looking for experienced and educated leaders. I’ve really made the decision that I wanted to have a big change in my career, that change is going from a non-commissioned officer to a commissioned officer. –Casey Dunn
As you seek to transition into the unknowns of civilian life, access to higher education is critical to compete and keep pace with an ever-changing employment environment. Credit for prior learning (CPL) creates competitive options. More than 2,500 colleges and universities consider acceptance of the American Council on Education (ACE) credit recommendations giving you the chance to find the institution that best fits your needs and goals.
Preparing for my transition, education will help me run my 25-employee business. But the self-confidence I’ve gained is even more important. –Mathew Morin 
CPL also helps you in career planning. It provides a means for measuring your growth, knowledge, skills and abilities that are particularly important in career programs (advancement, commissioning programs, transition) and enhances your resume portfolio.
I’m a first-generation college student as well as first generation miliary and also first generation American coming from a Mexican mother and a father from El Salvador. I spent almost 12 years in the Army, so I went straight after high school. When I first enlisted, I was kind of a brat, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would question everything which is obviously a horrible way of doing stuff in the Army. But, towards the end of my career I had been a sergeant for 10 years at that point so the first two years were rough. But after that, I figured out how you know how to be a soldier and I took the values that I learned in the Army and applied it to my education. –Edwin Duarte
The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) partners with ACE, an established, trusted leader in higher education, to help veterans succeed by gaining maximum credit for prior military training and occupational experiences. The work includes customizing and modernizing tools, such as the ACE Military Guide, and by promoting the adoption of CPL and digital credentials. This creates a lighter lift for you because we are making military CPL easier for higher education institutions to understand, review, determine, and accept your earned skills toward meaningful degrees.  In addition, we are increasing the number of courses and occupations that are reviewed and validated for academic credit recommendations.
Follow Your Dream
Like standard college transcripts, the Joint Services Transcript, or JST, ( lists all courses and occupations completed by you as a professional military learner. Many of the occupations and training courses have been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE) to include descriptions, academic subjects, and the corresponding number of recommended college credits in semester hours. ACE credit recommendations are recognized and considered by many regionally accredited colleges and universities throughout the United States. The benefits of JST include an increased return on investment, uniformity and centralization, and the alignment of service-specific information. 
Research and identify an academic institution that meets your individual needs. You may consider selecting an institution and academic programs that have policies which maximize your nontraditional learning (military credit, CLEP, DSST, etc.) to expedite completion of a degree. Many learners focus more on their long-term objectives and choose a program based on career goals or personal passions. 
Since I was a sophomore in high school, I always wanted to teach US history. ACE credits recommended I do a degree in business, which would have given me credits for my military leadership courses and recruit training. I do work for the US Bank so that degree would have been great, and it would have given me over 24 credits at the University of Texas, El Paso where I attend school now as a junior. But at the time I decided to major in history and ACE gave me 16 credits toward my general education and also credit toward military science which helped me save time and money towards my education and goals. –Edwin Duarte
All higher education institutions offer some form of academic advising. Speak with an academic adviser at the school you have chosen to attend. They will help you avoid taking classes for which you may receive transfer credit until an official evaluation is completed. Many learners waste valuable time and money taking classes that are unnecessary duplications of previous courses, because they signed up before their military and prior college transcripts were completely evaluated.
Your military transcripts provide documented evidence of your professional military education and training and occupation experiences. When evaluating your prior military learning experiences, you should ask yourself two key questions:  First, am I getting maximum education credit for my prior military experience?  Second, am I wasting time and money by taking courses that may have already gained credit recommendation through ACE?    
Embrace the Fears
Making the decision to start school after a military career can be an intimidating prospect. The time and cost required to complete a higher education program are some of the most common concerns, which is why it is important to leverage your military experience through the JST!
I know from the military side of this, a lot of veterans had no problem volunteering for airport school jumping out of helicopters or deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. But the thought of going back to school as an older student was terrifying.  By ACE giving us credit for some classes, it gave us time to adjust and be successful in college. –Edwin Duarte
Saving time and money by accessing academic credit through your JST is a benefit from your military career that sets you up for success in academic settings. You’ve also developed the ability to adapt and overcome through obstacles. Your problem solving, critical thinking, and self-motivation skills provide an advantage when pursuing higher education.
I find more often than not, veterans returning to college are very intimidated. Imagine going back to school being 26, 27, 32, or 40+ years old and then being surrounded by people that are essentially your peers, these 18–19-year-old traditional students.
I find that veterans hesitate to pursue things like ACE credits. So, I just want to let you know that we can do it, we can win it. We just have to pursue it. 
–Brendyn Melugin 
You are not alone in navigating these next steps. There are a number of tools and programs that are trusted and available to help you make decisions about going to school and choosing programs. For example, through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) you will find valuable resources such as college and career planning, academic skills training, MilEd Benefits app and self-assessment tools such as TA Decide and Kuder Journey. 
Build a Support Structure
Once you’ve made the personal and professional decision to attend a college or university, it’s best to start the process right away. That also means ensuring your family, friends and colleagues are also informed of your journey. 
Family will always come first to me, so everything else is balanced around that main focal point. A great leader that I once had told me that nobody misses you when you’re asleep. And all that means is, you know, when the kids or the family is asleep, they don’t notice that you’re gone. So those extremely late nights or those really early mornings, those are the times that I really dedicated to putting in the work at school. So those times that they are awake and for those events, I assure that I’m there for them. –Casey Dunn
Connect with veteran services groups or organizations on your campus and within your community for support. Other veterans have learned from their experiences and are willing to share their lessons learned. Hear from their successes as part of your individual journey.
When I first enrolled at Norco College, at the admissions office, they let me know there was a veteran’s club that would help adjust to college life. I instantly clicked with the VA certifying official where we made my education plan together, he gave me the lay of the land on campus. With the help of other veterans, they let me know which professors they had enjoyed and what other clubs they had enjoyed. Getting involved with the clubs on campus really helped connect me and introduced me to the school staff. –Edwin Duarte
The academic experience is transformational, but it’s also challenging, frustrating, and there are moments of uncertainty. 
I’d like to go ahead and recognize a lot of the faculty at my school, the University of North Georgia for really pushing me to take the next steps, for going to research conferences, for presenting, for supporting me. –Brendyn Melugin 
The beauty of the academic experiences is a blend of what happens both inside and outside the formal classroom. Your faculty members are the facilitators and they want you to succeed. 
Inspire Others
Employers of all sizes, to include the US Armed Forces, are rethinking talent development and what it means to professionalize their industry more deeply. There is an enhanced focus on enriching knowledge, skills, behaviors, and preferences in tandem with abilities, competencies, and proficiencies. 
For me, leadership starts with the example that you set, it’s not just the things you say. The Army is going to continue to develop leaders through education and I want to be at the front of that movement. 
–Casey Dunn
College and other learning can be connected. Evaluating non-college learning – workplace, military, and alternative provider – for academic credit is practical and sustainable and optimizes human capital by linking it to recognized credentials.
The dean of admissions noticed my work ethic and GPA. He offered me a staff position to help with their Military Articulation Platform (MAP) program, a tool used to award credits for prior learning. I would be a military liaison and help them translate what some of the training could be used for. –Edwin Duarte
Learning is continuous. We are now in a learning economy which requires that all learning – workplace, military, community, and college – be connected to optimize human capital for social mobility and economic competitiveness.
In reality, in today’s culture, you need to have a degree. I think it’s important to have an education no matter what. This is why I provide mentorship and advising to subordinates. –Matthew Morin
To quote Mahatma Gandhi “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” You too can drive on and leverage your education. 
References, Testimonials and Quotes
American Council on Education (ACE) Military Guide, 
Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), MilEd Benefits,
Duarte, Edwin, 2020 ACE Student of the Year,
Dunn, Casey, 2021 ACE Student of the Year,
Joint Services Transcript (JST),
Melugin, Brendyn, 2018 ACE Student of the Year,
Morin, Matthew, 2019 ACE Student of the Year,