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4 Veterans who prove going to college after the military is worth it

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Since its inception in 1944, the GI Bill has helped multiple generations of veterans transition from military service to the civilian workforce by offering educational benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has only expanded these opportunities, helping to increase the rate of veterans going to college after their military service.

But as a service member approaching the end of your military career, you might find it difficult to determine which path you should take in your efforts to transition into civilian life. Even when armed with your GI Bill benefits, you may be asking yourself: "Is going to college after the military worth it?"

As you think about what's right for you, you may want to consider the stories of military veterans who have walked this path before you. The following four University of Massachusetts Global graduates have proven that pursuing higher education after military retirement can help some veterans find their true purpose.

4 Veterans who found their purpose by going to college after the military

These stories highlight just a few of the directions you can take your education after serving in the military.

1. No leadership position is out of reach for former Army medic 

University of Massachusetts Global graduate Run Heidelberg began his journey toward nursing as a medic in the U.S. Army and National Guard. During his service, he began to feel a draw toward the nursing profession. Heidelberg gradually realized his specific passion was for the psychiatric side of nursing.

"I learned there was a lot more going on than just aches and pains," Heidelberg says, recalling a number of soldiers he treated who simply needed someone to talk to. He quickly realized that advancing his education would be the key to expanding his ability to help patients with both their mental health challenges and physical ailments.

After becoming a registered nurse (RN), Heidelberg earned both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in nursing. Upon deciding to pursue his Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, however, he realized the options for earning advanced nursing degrees in his home state of Hawaii were limited. As Heidelberg looked for programs that would allow him to maintain a full-time job without relocating, University of Massachusetts Global caught his eye. The combination of online courses and biannual full-week immersions at the Irvine, California, campus allowed him to keep up with the commitments of his daily life while earning his DNP.

"They meet you when you're available," Heidelberg says of University of Massachusetts Global.

With a terminal degree in nursing now under his belt, Heidelberg continues to make waves in the world of health care. He is the first nurse to become the Associate Administrator of Clinical Services at the Hawaii State Hospital - a role previously filled only by medical doctors. In his leadership position, he's responsible for overseeing the heads of seven crucial divisions, including psychiatry, psychology and forensics.

Navy veteran climbs his way into political office

Greg Wheeler always believed that there were some lessons he could never learn in the classroom. He had a desire to explore the world through travel. After witnessing how serving in the military helped some of his friends gain maturity and strong job skills, he considered a similar path for himself.

"The Navy offered the best types of training that were transferrable to the shipyard, where I ended up working," Wheeler says.

He served five years of active duty before returning home for an apprenticeship at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility. Once there, Wheeler slowly began to climb the ladder. He eventually learned that he'd need some formal leadership training if he wanted to continue to progress in his career. Wheeler opted to earn his bachelor's degree in organizational leadership at then-Chapman University College. He was grateful for the support he had when he returned to the classroom, because he felt out of practice at being a student. 

"Talk about a raw person when I started," he quips. "I was probably 48 or 49 years old when I went back to school for the first time in 25 years."

Wheeler graduated with his bachelor's degree in 2013 and was proud to be the first in his family to do so. Before long, he felt the urge to give back to his community. Politics felt like the perfect fit, so he served three terms on the City Council in his native town of Bremerton, Washington, and eventually became mayor. He realized that he also wanted to help out businesses when he saw a handful of companies leaving the area for bigger and better opportunities.

"I wanted to see small businesses thrive," Wheeler says. "I wanted to see mid-size businesses expand and hire more people. I wanted people in our neighborhoods to have employment opportunities in our city."

Before long, he realized that he'd benefit from learning more about what it's like to be a business owner. Wheeler chose to pursue his MBA at UMass Global University and graduated in 2016. He says the intuitive, flexible and supportive learning environment offered by University of Massachusetts Global was a natural fit for his life and goals. Now, Mayor Wheeler is focused on making positive changes for Bremerton with a specific emphasis on addressing the affordable housing issues in the area.

3. Army nurse makes waves as a provider for civilians

"I'm a very service-oriented individual. I like caring for others," explains Salema Coaxum. These motivations helped foster her interest in nursing and also drove her to enlist in the U.S. Army National Guard in 1990. Even so, she still maintained a goal to one day earn her degree. Coaxum eventually earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, becoming a certified RN in 2008. She began her post-military career as a travel nurse.

"When I did get into nursing, I found out it wasn't the flowers and cotton candy I thought it was going to be," Coaxum says.

She began to see issues with the leadership team where she was working, as well as a general lack of teamwork. All of these things, Coaxum says, appeared to contribute to an unhealthy amount of burnout among her fellow nurses. She turned her frustration into inspiration as she pursued her DNP at University of Massachusetts Global. Coaxum graduated in 2016 with the goal of improving nurses' overall experience in the profession. For Coaxum, the choice to attend University of Massachusetts Global for her doctoral education was an easy one.

"I needed an online program for the flexibility," she says. "I heard about UMass Global through searching the internet for online DNP programs." She adds that the school's military-friendly status especially appealed to her.

The goal that drove her to pursue her DNP remained steadfast well past her graduation. She had a strong desire to become the type of leader she wished she had had when she was an RN.

Coaxum poured her heart and soul into her final doctoral project, which examined the impact physical activity can have on mental health. She was selected to present her project at the sold-out Sigma Theta Tau conference in 2019 and was named a Rising Star of Research and Scholarship. Her ultimate goal is to eventually open her own wellness center.

4. Army medic finds his purpose in helping veterans access health care

During the course of Zane Speegle's military career, he was deployed to Iraq twice - once in a combat role and once as an Army medic. Speegle saw his share of physical trauma during these experiences. But it wasn't until he returned home and was faced with transitioning to civilian life that his real challenges began. He was also coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I spent many years trying to drown my sorrows and my nightmares," Speegle says. "It took me a long time before I actually came out and asked for help."

He spent years trying to find his purpose after retiring from the military. Speegle eventually found that he felt most passionate about the idea of serving his valued active duty and veteran community in a medical administration role. But, in order to do so, he knew he'd need to go back to school.

After learning about the accessible education services offered at University of Massachusetts Global in tandem with its military-friendly status, Speegle was compelled to enroll in the Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership program. He enjoyed the familiarity he felt while attending classes with other military service members and veterans, and later returned to earn his MBA

"With the education I have received at UMass Global, I have been able to provide for my family at levels I had only imagined a few years back."

Shortly after completing his MBA program, Speegle landed his dream job at Madigan Army Medical Center. He's able to help soldiers by streamlining operations and freeing up resources that go toward providing valuable services. He says that by giving back, he is now able to move forward.

Could yours be the next veteran success story? 

As you contemplate what your next steps will be after your military retirement, you might be thinking about education. But the idea of going to college after the military can be intimidating. Hopefully reading about the ways higher education unlocked myriad opportunities for the military veterans featured above could help you begin to see an array of possibilities emerge.

A number of promising jobs after the military are waiting, but first you'll need to find a higher education institution that can help you transition to the civilian workforce. You should know that University of Massachusetts Global has consistently been ranked as a top-tier institution for military service members and veterans. Head over to the Military & Veterans information page to find out whether UMass Global could be right for you.

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