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The following interview is with Nathan Sable, a non-traditional student at George Washington University. Sable is a Navy veteran who was deployed four times during his career. After leaving the military, he enrolled at Appalachian State University where he completed a year of studies before transferring to GWU. In this interview, Sable reflects back on his higher education experience, shares some insights into how the system could be improved and elaborates on how institutions can improve the experience for veterans.
1. You served in the military for six years and you enlisted at 17. Why did you decide to enroll in higher education when you left the Navy?
It was always my plan when I got out to go to school. I joined when the original GI Bill was started, then they signed the post-9/11 GI Bill and it just worked really well with what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to pay for school.
I dropped out of high school so I was at a disadvantage for my education. I hadn’t taken the SATs and I hadn’t done any of the normal preparation you would do to apply to school. I’d taken a lot of classes and [some online classes] while I was in the Navy and that prepared me a little bit. I shot in the dark and applied to schools. I applied to Appalachian State, which was in my hometown and … I went there for a year but it wasn’t what I wanted to learn. … I applied to six schools and I got into three of them. George Washington University (GWU) stood out and I decided to choose that.
2. What was the college application process like the second time?
I talked to a lot of teachers to get recommendations and I got good ones and sent those off. It was a long process of rewriting application forms, talking about what I did in the military, what I had learned, and what kind of jobs I had. I tried to apply that to higher learning. It was an expensive process too. I probably spent $500 on all the application materials and fees. I applied to a lot of schools just to see what I wanted to get into … and I was very fortunate to be accepted to the schools that I did.
3. What advice do you have for other veterans who are enrolling in higher ed for the first time?
Coming out of the military, I didn’t have the skills needed, I didn’t have the GPA to get into better schools, so what I did was go to the school that I could get into and I just did really well there, had a good GPA, had good recommendations and from there I was able to apply [to other, better schools]. It laid the groundwork for going to the school where I could learn what I wanted to lean.
4. Did you have any opportunity to have any of your prior learning from the Navy count towards credits in higher ed?
It really varies by school. At Appalachian State, they didn’t take very much. They took some of the courses I’d taken online in the Navy … but it’s really arbitrary. A lot of the things overlap. I took a lot for geography and writing courses in the Navy and a lot of that didn’t transfer over.
GWU took some [transfer credits], like naval sciences or mediation classes, but a lot of the classes I had to redo that I figured I’d get credit for but I didn’t. A lot of courses that I had to take I really wished I didn’t have to take. I just had to do it because I had to do it.
5. Non-academically, looking at your experience with the administration of universities, what has it been like?
I’ve never had a problem with the bureaucracy. I’ve never had to worry about paying for school, which has been great. GWU has a lot of great programs; they have really tried hard to boost their military veteran population at the school. They hired an admiral to work with the vets. They’ve got counselors, they have all kinds of guides, they have a big veteran population, so that made the transition really easy.
The best thing that they’ve been able to do is provide me a secondary job while I’m at school. … It gives you a lot of civilian work experience, and I’ve learned more than I have in actually going to school. Just having a secondary job with the university I’ve gotten exposure to all kinds of different jobs and things I wouldn’t have had, and that’s really helped me be ready for the workforce when I get out.
I don’t want to stick around college forever. I was in the Navy for six years and I want to get back into the job market. If I could have bypassed college altogether I would have done it. I want to get out of there as fast as possible and finish it. I’ve taken the maximum amount of courses I can during the semester to [finish my degree] as fast as possible. I wish it was more streamlined, that there was better transition from the credits from the Navy to higher education.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience as a veteran going through higher ed and some of the changes that could be made at a larger structural level to help other veteran students overcome some for the bumps you experienced?
When I got out of the Navy I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what college to go to, I didn’t know what the best colleges were. I didn’t know which ones I could get into. A lot of times, veterans will go to community colleges and stay there for a long time and they’ll drop out. I know a lot of guys that do that and just waste their money and never get a degree or finish their program and they don’t know what’s the best program, they don’t know what schools are out there and they don’t have any idea what would fit with the skill set they’ve learned in the military.
I know medics that go to college to get a nursing degree and they have to re-learn everything they’ve learned and then they’re wasting all [the GI Bill] money they’ve acquired and they can’t graduate on time. …
I think a lot of us have the aspiration to go to a great school, get a great program and have a great job when they’re done but when they get out they have no idea what’s out there.
That was the problem I had when I got out. It took me a year to get into school. … I had to take a lot of different jobs when I got out to stay afloat and I needed the GI Bill money because you get money to live off of to go to school while you’re [enrolled]. It took a good year to actually land where I wanted to land. That’s the biggest hurdle.
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Author Perspective: Student
It really sounds like the military should have someone appointed to help vets navigate the system. From what I understand, the same things happened after the first GI Bills were signed and vets had no idea how to make the most of them. They have guidance counselors in high schools to help students understand the process and requirement for applying to universities and colleges. Why not have the same thing for vets.
Not enough educational support, not enough mental health support. The government really is doing a crappy job of taking care of the people whose lives it’s most fond of risking. It should come as no surprise that just throwing money at people isn’t going to teach them how to get and education. Especially since many people enter the military in the first place because they don’t have the support they need to navigate post-secondary education.
That seems like rather a lot to ask. The money is there and these people are grown-ups. I think the extra time and money is better spent helping teenagers get on the right educational paths. They are still the population in the stage of life where they need the most help.