A Military Spouse’s Words of Wisdom on Education and Career Advancement

By Sonya Blevins, DNP, RN, CMSRN, CNE

We know the realities of military life: frequent moves, changing jobs and uprooting children from their normal routines, all while dealing with the daily stress of military service. Change is a constant in military life, and while military members and their families take these changes in stride, they still present certain challenges to military spouses in particular as they continue their education and pursue career advancement.

Imagine this: A military spouse, who is a registered nurse, starts her graduate nursing education. During her program’s three-year time frame, she moves three times. However, amidst all this life change, there is one thing that remains the same during these three years: her graduate education path, thanks to the flexibility of online learning.

Sonya Belvins. | Photo credit Courtesy photo

That was my story. While it was challenging to move so much while earning my degree, pursuing my education through an accredited online program allowed me to continue my dreams while not losing credits or money for the courses that I had already taken prior to each move.

Online education made all the difference in allowing me to pursue a career and is an especially valuable tool for all military spouses on the move.

Flexibility of Online Learning

Many bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programs are now offered online. For military spouses, online learning provides flexibility in where and how one learns. No matter where in the world their next duty station takes them, military spouses can still continue their education.

Online learning means spouses can also be flexible with what time of day they complete their courses, which is especially helpful for those who are employed, or perhaps are the sole childcare provider for their family.

For me, I was a night shift nurse, so I took my courses during the day at different times than an individual who works a traditional 9-5 job. Regardless of my challenging schedule, I was able to complete my work at times that worked best for me, and I graduated.

What to Look for in an Online School

Today, there are many options for online learning. Before beginning any program, it is important for military spouses to research the school and programs offered (having a spreadsheet so that one can compare the information on each school is always helpful). When looking into online learning institutions, consider factoring these questions into the decision:

A military spouse attends an online class.

Is the school and program of study (A.K.A., major) accredited? Attending a school that is accredited means that certain standards have been met by the school.

To find out if a university is accredited, go to the U.S. Department of Education’s website and confirm. With individual programs of study, accreditation may be available for the program, too; for example, program accreditation is available for nursing programs. Attending a program or school that is accredited can not only ensure students have a top-notch education that meets a set of standards, it also may help military spouses in their career searches down the road.

Is the program offered entirely online?

Not all programs are offered entirely online. Some require a combination of online and on-site courses, which is known as a “hybrid format.” In addition, some programs require a residency or time where one has to physically go to the school to attend an orientation or additional practice experiences.

For military spouses, this distinction is important, as they must make sure that they can either attend these in-person aspects of their program, or ensure that they enroll in a program that is entirely online, so that they can complete their courses at their assigned duty station.

What is included in the tuition?

Does the school’s tuition include lab fees and textbooks? Are there any military discounts? For a military spouse, how does in-state versus out-of-state tuition fees impact the tuition amount? What opportunities for financial aid exist at the school? These are all important things to factor into a military spouse’s decision.

If one has prior credits from another school, will they transfer in? What about prior training from military experiences, does this count?

Knowing this information will help in determining how long and how much money it will take to complete the program.

Are there any states where the program cannot be offered?

With military PCS moves that take military families all around the country – and the world – it is important to know if the school bars residents of certain states or locations from enrollment.

What military support services does the school have?

Many schools have specific employees or departments that work with military-affiliated students. This can include the admissions department, transfer credits, advising and more. Having this support is important for military spouses and other student members of the military community because these departments have a better understanding of military life and the challenges that come with it that could affect a student’s education.

How can the USO be there to provide support and community connection?

No matter where military spouses are located, they can always lean on the USO as a way to find support and connect with fellow military spouses. At in-person or virtual USO Military Spouse Networking and USO Coffee Connections events, participants can meet other military spouses, learn about their local communities and even make new friends.

Military spouses can also participate in the USO Pathfinder® Transition Program, which offers professional development services throughout the duration of their service member’s career.

Challenges of Online Learning

While online learning offers many opportunities, it is also important to acknowledge some of its challenges.

Pursuing education online requires students to get comfortable with technology, as everything is done virtually online. At first, this can be intimidating. However, it is important for military spouses and prospective online students to keep in mind that the more one works with the technology, the better one will become. Many higher education schools have student support and IT help desks that support students, and taking advantage of these services can make the entire educational experience go much more smoothly.

Military spouses who are moving to a new duty station have the added challenges of needing to plan out their study sessions, find public internet access or get internet services installed as quickly as possible in their new home during a PCS move. Military spouses must often get creative, such as by using hotspots on their cell phones to get Wi-Fi or find locations around town with free internet, such as a local library or USO center.

Most importantly, despite all the constant change in military life, military spouses must get into a routine of studying, which can require juggling home, work and family commitments. However, having certain times set aside for studying can ease the stress of completing all of one’s assignments.

While military life can make it challenging for military spouses to pursue further education and, ultimately, enhance their career opportunities, online education is an effective tool in reaching those goals. No matter where the military sends them, military spouses can get a first-rate education in an environment that is conducive to military life.

- Dr. Sonya Blevins is a military widow who completed her graduate education during her husband’s time in the U.S. Army. Currently, she serves as an Associate Dean for Nursing at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

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