Back to School after the Military



A military career can have great benefits. You get to travel, see different cultures, do meaningful work, develop personal discipline, and learn more about the world than you would by staying home. But often, choosing to serve means bypassing going to college in your late teens and early twenties. Going back to school after the military can be much more rewarding because you bring a deeper level of life experience to your academic education.

Jay Hagstrom, a 27-year-old military veteran, is already reaping the benefits of going back to school later in life. After his military career ended, he decided to go back to school for a business management degree to help him with his civilian transition. He has found that his military training has given him more discipline when it comes to getting his work done, and being older has helped him appreciate class time in ways that his younger, fresh-out-of-high-school classmates might not quite understand.

“I have a different perspective than the other students,” he said, “and it really helped me understand things in a  different way.”

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The First Step to Better Opportunities

When Hagstrom was officially discharged from the military in 2012, he had a high school diploma but no college experience. His job prospects didn’t reflect where he wanted to be professionally. “Before I got the position I have now,” he said, “I was working third shift on the production floor, actually running the machines, and I just wanted to give myself better opportunities.”

Going back to school took some initiative, though. “I talked about it for a long time,” he admits. “The big thing you have to do is take the first step and actually apply to school,” he advises. “Once you get accepted,” he said, “for me, I knew I wasn’t going to back down at that point.”

Hagstrom enrolled at Franklin Pierce University to get his bachelor’s degree in business management. He explained, “I chose it based on where I already was. I enjoy the company I work for.” Hagstrom discussed his education plans with his supervisor. “Business management opens it up to multiple opportunities,” Hagstrom described.

He feels good about his choice. “A lot of kids go to school because it’s the thing to do,” he said. But for Hagstrom, it’s a different kind of mission. “Once you know you’re going for a reason and you know what you want,” he added, “you have that drive, and you’re going to focus a lot more. You know what you need to get done.”

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A New Mission to Learn

Hagstrom takes classes both online and on campus.  He’s completed one full semester so far and is currently in the midst of his summer semester. Although he knows the achievement will be worth the work, he admits that there are times when it is challenging.

“I think the hardest thing about going back to school was getting back into the groove,” he said. “I hadn’t taken a math class in 11 years,” he admitted, “so just not having that fresh-from-high-school experience on the actual, main academic part of it made it a little harder.” His summer coursework is also on a compressed schedule, and “a lot of work [is] expected on a weekly basis,” he explained.

His military service helps him meet academic challenges head on. “[It] helped me in my own ideas of studying and having the drive and the discipline to actually know what I need to do and get it done,” he said. Hagstrom is buoyed by the accomplishments he has already achieved in the military and uses them as a source of determination.

“I know that I made it through the Marine corps boot camp and achieved that goal,” he said, “so school is really nothing.”

Hagstrom can directly relate his time oversees in the military and his work experience to his classwork. “When I was in the Marines I traveled a lot,” he said, including Australia and Iraq. “I [saw] different cultures, and [I know] America isn’t the only way people live,” he added. This broadened horizon peaked his interest in his antrhopology class. “I was really interested in the idea behind it,” he described, “being able to compare it to what I had seen during my time in the military.”

At his job, Hagstrom is already using what he learned in his summer statistics course. “I can apply that to work and understand more of what the engineers are looking for,” he said. “I like to be able to compare it to something in the real world,” he added. This connection is an important part of his education. “Once you get older and you can focus on a career path, you can apply that to real life situations,” he said.

[Learn about 5 Tuition Assistance Programs for Military Spouses.]

Career and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Hagstrom balances a full-time career with a full-time college schedule. “I have to work my schedule around my school schedule,” he explained. “I go to work, and then I leave and go to class, and then I come back,” he said. Happily, he has support to make this back-and-forth balance work. “My super has worked with me to make sure I’m still getting my 40 hours but that I have the opportunity to pursue a higher education,” he said.

He’s finding that the two are blending together well. Looking ahead to future business classes he will take, Hagstrom said, “I’m hoping…that some of my experience from my job will help me to understand, or at least be able to relate, to some of the stuff they’re teaching us.” With real-world experience comes real-world understanding.

The biggest challenge he finds in his busy schedule is time management. “[If] I have a little bit of downtime at work, I do some reading or some homework at that point,” he said. “Or I’ll come home from work and take two hours to get stuff done,” he added. In true military style, he always finds a way of “getting it done.”

[Read more: 10 In-Demand Jobs for Veterans.]

To other veterans who may be interested in going back to school, Hagstrom encourages you to just go for it. “I just keep thinking about the benefits I’m going to have when I’m all done with this, and I’ll be able to say I have my degree,” he said. To him, prior military service is an advantage to going back to school. “You made the decision to go into the military, and if you can complete that, you can definitely go to school,” he encouraged. In short, “It’s a lot shorter, there are less requirements, and you get a really important piece of paper at the end.”

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