By Kate Blalock
Both active duty and veteran members of the military have many demands on their time, and balancing work, school, and military commitments can be challenging. Four years ago, that was me–I was an active duty member of the US Coast Guard trying to juggle work, school, and home. I knew how important it was to get an early start on my degree; I had heard all too often from retired veterans how they wished they had started taking college courses earlier.
Military members are offered excellent educational benefits, and it’s worth the extra time and effort to get a start on your degree. Even if you don’t have a degree plan, there are several lower level courses you can complete right away. With many colleges now offering online classes, it’s easier than ever to complete your degree–whether you’re on active duty or a veteran.
The University of North Dakota has a rich history of helping the military and currently has over 1,100 total veterans, spouses, and dependents enrolled. It has been named one of the “top 3 military-friendly online schools” by the Guide to Online Schools, and it was ranked amongst the “top 200 best national universities” by the US News and World Report. UND offers its students flexibility with over 225 academic programs, including 100 graduate programs and 40 online programs.
Accreditation is an important factor to consider when choosing a university; some employers prefer applicants with degrees from accredited universities. UND is fully accredited by the High Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges & Schools, and the Distance Engineering Degree Program is one of the few online programs accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.
UND’s Office of Veteran and Military Services and the Office of the Registrar work closely with veterans and active duty service members. All veterans and their dependents are offered the North Dakota in-state tuition rate, regardless of residency. UND also accepts academic credit for your military training and experience; specifically, UND accepts credits from the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and the American Council on Education (ACE).
From Active Duty to Student
Transitioning to student life can be difficult for military members, and UND has an excellent Veteran & Nontraditional Student Services Office that can help ease the transition. Active duty members, veterans, spouses, and dependents are considered non-traditional students; these students typically have more experience than traditional students and are more self-sufficient. Although there is no formal transition program for military members, students are encouraged to engage the Veteran Student Services Office if they have any questions. All non-traditional students receive weekly emails that include information about financial assistance, school events and activities, student life, and academic programs. These emails help non-traditional students feel more connected with UND, even if they never set foot on campus.
I recently interviewed Ms. Jessica Reule, who supervises the Veteran and Student Services Office and is the main point of contact for veterans. She handles outreach, networking, and marketing for the program. Ms. Reule informed me that while there is no specific transition program for military students, UND is currently working on adding an orientation for military students to be held during general student orientation. She added that one of the most important things you can do as a new student/veteran is to attend orientation.
There are many different types of funding veterans can use, and the Veteran Student Services Office can answer any eligibility questions. Most military services offer Tuition Assistance for active duty members that will pay for some or all of the course cost; however, Tuition Assistance is handled at the unit level, not through the University. For more information about Tuition Assistance, check with your unit’s Educational Services Officer or visit UND’s Student Account Services. UND also offers students various scholarships, including the non-traditional student scholarship, and you can use your VA benefits such as Post 9/11 or Montgomery GI Bill. You will want to familiarize yourself with UND’s VA Benefits Policies before enrolling.
Ms. Reule mentioned that the VA benefit process can be complex. “There’s a common misconception that just because the paperwork with the VA is done, students think the school knows. It’s important that you notify our office that you are using VA benefits, in addition to filling out your VA paperwork”, which needs to be certified by UND before the VA will pay for your classes. If you have any questions about using education benefits or being a veteran/military student at UND, you can contact the Veteran Student Services Office on the 3rd floor of the Memorial Union at UND, or at 701.777.3363.
Advice to potential students
When choosing a program of study, active duty members should consider taking online courses rather than on-campus courses. Ms. Reule pointed out that online courses are more flexible than on-campus courses, since students can continue to take online courses even while deployed. She also suggests that military students maintain open communication with their instructors and advisors in case of possible conflicts or deployments. Instructors notified in advance should be able to work with students to resolve issues.
The most common challenge Ms. Reule sees with veterans is during their first semester. “Transitioning into the first semester is the most difficult because there is not as much structure, online or on campus.” Active duty members are accustomed to a rigid schedule with direction, and transitioning to student life where classes and schedules are more subjective can be difficult. To combat this, Ms. Reule suggests that veterans keep a daily rigorous schedule. “Plan your day and fill your schedule, and write it down in a planner when possible. This will give you more of a purpose and ease that transition.” She also suggests that veterans should include physical training in their academic schedule, and make use of UND’s Wellness Center if you are on-campus. Being active will help you keep your momentum and physical health that you are used to having in the military.
I have been taking online classes at UND for four years, first as an active duty service member and then as a veteran. It has been challenging, especially when trying to juggle my military commitments and school; I often had to work through lunch or late at night to complete assignments. Despite the challenges, however, the experience has been rewarding. Even though I was miles away from campus, the Veteran Student Services Office provided me support and helped me feel included with the University. I’m glad I started working towards my degree while I was still on active duty; I’m now in my final semester and looking forward to graduation. If you’re on active duty, get a head start on your degree and consider taking online classes from UND.