Tips for Choosing a Veteran-Friendly Graduate School

Article by Angela Montgomery, Assistant Dean and Executive Director of Graduate Admissions at Drexel University.

My husband proudly served in the United States Army for 20 years.

We met when he was already eight years into his career, so I came a little bit late to the military spouse party. But I was immediately overwhelmed by the sense of community I was surround by — the instantaneous feeling of belonging and support that came with being a member, even tacitly, of the armed services community.

Over his 12 remaining years in the military, I came to appreciate the sense of purpose that came from having an understanding of and alignment with a shared vision. It made realizing a common goal so much easier when you knew that everyone was working together in the same direction. Success was inevitable.

But it certainly wasn’t easy. You had to work hard and make great sacrifices. People expected a LOT from you. Yet you were never by yourself and, above all else, the task always got done.

That support came in many forms: garrison support, your family, mentors but, most of all, your team. Everyone had a role to play in your success. And that success was shared.

I think that this sense of purpose, this community of support, and the expectation that you’d do hard things well were the aspects of my husband’s military service that most impressed me.

But the thing about which I was most proud was the role he got to play in the amazing legacy that was his branch of service. There was history. And tradition. And a mission. And he got to live out his values and the values of the organization every day, as so many people had done before him. One small piece of a very old and proud machine.

Even in a field of soldiers and officers, it ultimately was his own personal experiences and characteristics which mattered most. What he brought to the table made those around him better and stronger. But the same was true for everyone else. What an incredible experience it was to contribute in such a way to an organization. I’m certainly grateful I got to be a part of it all, even if just for a little bit.

Most importantly, finding a graduate school is about support.

Transitioning from the military can be an incredibly challenging time — I’ve seen it firsthand in my husband and his friends. Many veterans find themselves poised to take on new and very different challenges yet aren’t quite sure where to begin. Often, graduate school becomes a path that makes sense — a place to acquire new skills and different knowledge that, when combined with the hard-earned world experiences veterans have, make the future of their leadership limitless.

In working with our veteran population as an admissions professional (but also as a mentor and a military spouse), I see themes unfold as the veteran community searches for graduate programs that feel like good matches. And those themes make a lot of sense:  

  1. Does this school offer me the skills and knowledge that I will need to achieve my next professional and personal goals? 
  2. Is this organization one in which I have faith in its traditions, history, and mission? Do my values match the school’s values? 
  3. Does this school understand me? Will they provide the support services necessary to ensure that I am successful? Will they value my service and my uniqueness as a veteran-student, but also provide me the sense of camaraderie and team that I thrive in and have come to operate best in?  

If I’m honest, almost all schools out there can offer you the skills and knowledge you need for your “what’s next.” There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, offering programs in full-time, part-time, evening, weekend, online, on-campus and hybrid models. Almost anywhere, you’ll be able to find a program that will deliver for you the requirements for your career of choice.   

What it comes down to for most, then, is proper fit and support.

When researching graduate schools, I encourage everyone to look into the school’s mission and history. What does it stand for? Whom does it serve? What kind of students attend? What kind of professors choose to make their careers there? What sorts of problems are they spending their time and resources trying to solve? Understanding the mission of an organization can go a long way towards finding your learning home. Will you be proud to add to your legacy to its name? And will they be just as proud to add your contributions to theirs? As your military service has taught, when you believe in an organization, you will rise to the challenges presented and become one of its ranks.

Most importantly, finding a graduate school is about support. Important things to look for include veterans-related services such as special academic advising, a financial aid officer who understands your benefits, staff and faculty who recognize the unique perspective that our student veterans bring to the classroom, and opportunities for professional development and career advancement. And, most importantly, a community of veteran learners who can share their experiences with one another, who provide a sense of community through social activities and service opportunities.

There are key words you can search for that will help you to know if those services exist for you and your family. Look for Yellow Ribbon Schools, and schools who have experience working the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Look for schools that are listed as highly ranked military-friendly schools. These are the schools who have been awarded special accolades for their ability to support the unique needs of service members through advising, academic, and community support. Look for schools who list veterans services and veterans clubs and organizations proudly on their websites. Schools will post prominently those things about which they are most proud.

In graduate school, people expect you to do hard things. But there are so many people who are there to provide guidance. And knowing that you are in a supportive community removes many of the typical challenges that transitioning veterans can run into.

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