Veterans Find Skills Serve Them Well in College
Ex-Military Men and Women Enrolling in UT Dallas at an Accelerated Rate
Nov. 11, 2011
The reasons that motivate military veterans to attend college are often more varied – and more imperative – than those that propel a typical teenager just completing high school. Veterans, with experiences that transcend their chronological years, often see a college degree as a mission — something they’re used to accomplishing.
Armed with Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits that Congress approved in 2008 and with Texas’ Hazlewood Act benefits, Texas veterans are pursuing college degrees at an accelerated pace — both on campus and through online programs at The University of Texas at Dallas.
John Lewis, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran with three tours in Iraq, returned to civilian life with management experience only a senior executive could imagine: He had watched over the lives and livelihoods of 20 Marines and one Navy corpsman while maintaining an inventory of $3 million worth of equipment and four Humvees. What he didn’t have was a college degree.
He’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the Naveen Jindal School of Management, as is his younger brother, James, a six-year U.S. Army veteran. Two of more than 700 veterans enrolled at UT Dallas, John and James enlisted at about the same time. John signed on for a four-year infantry position as a Marine. James thought he’d be doing a similar job with the Army but was tapped to join The Old Guard, the Army’s prestigious ceremonial infantry regiment based in Fort Myer, Va.
Like his brother, once James left the Army, he was committed to pursuing a college degree.
John, 29, started at Brookhaven College upon returning home to Farmers Branch. Now at UT Dallas, he’s taking his last three hours to wrap up his degree this semester. He’s also finalizing compensation details with the company he will join upon graduation.
Both brothers see their degree as a concrete goal — something that needs to get completed and where failure is not an option. “Sometimes,” says James, 26, “you just have to pound it in your head.” He has about a year left to complete his degree and is taking 18 hours this semester.
Unlike the Lewis brothers, Army veteran Ryan McLaughlin, 31, had an undergraduate degree when he enlisted in 2004. He’s at UT Dallas to round out his seven years of service that included two tours to Iraq. He finished his time in the Army as an infantry officer, responsible for 200 soldiers and their 800 family members.
He’s enrolled in the Jindal School’s Full-Time MBA program and working on a master’s in systems engineering and management — a degree offered in a joint program of the Jindal School and the Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.
“For a top 40 program, it’s an incredible value,” he says of the Jindal School’s MBA, pointing out the GI Bill picks up all his college expenses. He wanted to stay in North Texas — his wife is from Dallas — and UT Dallas fit his requirements for location, quality and the ability to work on the MBA and master’s degree simultaneously. “The program here is rising,” McLaughlin says. “The campus — the modern architecture appeals to me.”
McLaughlin can compare being a college student before and after his military experience. “I’m immensely more balanced than I was,” he says, “better at time management, better at balancing coursework and planning. I don’t want to be here (on campus studying) at 2 a.m.”
The Lewis brothers similarly find their past experience has given them certain advantages. Both were in military positions that involved training those beneath them and reporting to those above, experience that they say helped polish their communications skills. “We can project ourselves better,” John Lewis says. “You have to be able to talk to people (in the military).”
Tim Ellis, who is part of JSOM’s Professional Program in Accounting (PPA), also served in the U.S. Marine Corps with two deployments to Iraq. He agrees his military background has given him “a better bearing.”
“It gives you a slight competitive advantage,” says Ellis, who just finished his BS in accounting at UT Dallas, will complete his master’s in accounting in May and will take the CPA exams this spring. He’ll join Grant Thornton, a national accounting and consulting firm, in October 2012.
Ellis transferred to UT Dallas after completing his associate’s degree at North Lake College in Irving. UT Dallas’ location and academic quality appealed to him.
He started taking required business classes his first semester on campus and went online to check out student organizations. It was there he learned about the Professional Program in Accounting, a fast-track curriculum that shaves a year off earning an MS in accounting while offering students smaller classes and an extra dose of preparation for the challenging CPA exams.
Nationwide, many service members still on active duty begin their degrees online. One significant issue facing higher education today, says Darren Crone, Ed D, The University of Texas at Dallas eLearning director, is accessibility. “More and more students are nontraditional, meaning they don’t fit the stereotypical 18- to 22-year-old dorm-living college-student profile,” Crone says.
Crone completed much of his education online, a format he says meshes especially well with lives of active-duty personnel.
“We grant high-quality degrees,” Crone notes. “We want to make sure all students — military or not — are prepared for future careers.”
The respect for quality goes both ways, Crone says.
“Our professors like having military and former military students in their classes,” Crone says. “These are motivated individuals who take their jobs as students seriously. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a professor say how great it is having someone connected with the armed forces in their class, whether it’s in a classroom or in an online setting.
Ellis, 31, tries to share some lessons learned as a Marine in his current role as a teaching assistant in accounting. Ellis says his time in the Marine Corps trained him well in the get-things-done mindset, and he sees where it might benefit some of his students. “I try to convey (that) from their perspective,” Ellis says, “make it adaptable to their style.”
McLaughlin, who will complete his MBA in December 2012, already has two companies interested in offering him a job upon completion of his degree.
“We know our veterans are seen as good hires by employers,” says Joanna Fowler, assistant director of the Full-Time MBA program at the Jindal School. “I’ve never had problems getting MBA students with prior military service a full-time position upon graduation.”