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Military wives continue education through beauty school

MyCAA can help

Samantha Furlong, wife of a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is using a continuing education benefit to study cosmetology at Summit Salon Academy in Tacoma. Photo credit: Rachel Thomson

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Crystal Wilkerson enjoys the creative freedom she gets to practice at beauty school. The Tacoma 28-year-old mother of three is getting ready to complete a program at the Tacoma campus of BJ's Beauty & Barber College to become a stylist.  

"You can change anybody's look to anything they want," Wilkerson said.  "I love being able to create a look that matches clients' different personalities."

She's practiced her skills on clients, family members and even herself. Her hair has been dyed several times from blonde to burgundy and even purple.

It's a far cry from the uniform look she had to maintain while in the military. Both she and her husband, 31-year-old Ishmael Wilkerson, served in the U.S. Army and were stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She was a chemical specialist and served for three years; her husband is an active-duty Army private and will be completing his service next year. During his nine years of service in the military, he has deployed to Iraq twice.

"It was hard being apart," Crystal said. "We spent a lot of time on Skype and making phone calls."

After leaving the military, Crystal said she thought continuing her education would set a great example for her kids. So she decided to use her military benefits through the G.I. Bill to attend beauty school.

"I was a stay-at-home mom for a while, and I decided it was time to do something for myself," she said.

Continuing one's education by learning a technical skill such as cosmetology or skin care is a popular choice for both military spouses and military members, said Karen Shea, admissions director at the Summit Salon Academy in Tacoma. She said out of the 18 classes conducted each year, there are usually two to three students who are spouses of active-duty military members or are military veterans themselves. Spouses of military members are eligible for a Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) scholarship, a workforce development program that provides up to $4,000 of financial assistance to military spouses who are pursuing a license, certification or Associate's degree.

Shea said students who are veterans, or are spouses of veterans, often excel in technical learning environments such as beauty school.

"People with military backgrounds - whether they're a soldier or a spouse of a soldier - requires them to be very adaptable, able to work under pressure, have discipline and be very motivated," Shea said. "Those are great qualities in a career field like cosmetology."

Samantha Furlong, 23, began a cosmetology program at Summit Salon Academy in November of last year. Her husband, 28-year-old Sean Furlong, is a specialist in the U.S. Army at JBLM.

The Tacoma resident grew up around beauty salons, so cosmetology was a good fit for her. Her babysitter used to work at a salon, and she said her first job as a kid was earning a dollar every time she scooped up hair from the floor at a salon station.

The most challenging part of beauty school is "overcoming all your firsts," Furlong said, "like the first time seeing your client and gaining confidence while not letting the client know you're terrified."

She said having her husband's emotional support has gone a long way toward conquering the stress that can come with learning a new skill.

"You have to learn not to let military life interfere with each other's goals and dreams and not get caught up in a soldier's life," Furlong said. "To be a spouse means you have to be a partner and support each other's goals."

Stephanie Murphy, 25, of Lacey, began an esthetics program at Summit Salon Academy two months ago. She is the wife of U.S. Army Spc. Patrick Murphy. She said the best advice she can offer spouses of military members who are considering using military benefits to continue their education is to speak with school career counselors or admissions specialists.

When she was considering enrolling in school, she said a lot of information she found on websites was confusing. She called the admissions staff, and they answered her questions about enrollment and how to use her military benefits.

"They were fantastic and very down-to-earth once I spoke to them," Murphy said, adding that the MyCAA program "is a great resource and a lot of people don't know about it. It's a big help and a great opportunity."

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