From helping service members sift through mounds of GI Bill paperwork to ensuring a student continues classes when deployment falls in the middle of a semester, community college officials help military personnel deal with their often-complex and unpredictable educational lives.
Many servicemen and women return to college without a full understanding of the myriad benefits available to them in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, said community college employees charged with helping military personnel transition into higher education.
Michael Johnson, director of military services at the six-campus Northern Virginia Community College, said military students and reservists come to NVCC unaware of the Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program, which grants up to $6,000 for college classes or career training.
For young soldiers hoping to start a family and earn two incomes, the MyCAA program is a critical source of education funding that can boost a spouse's earning potential.
Unfortunately, many service members learn about MyCAA only when they meet with someone from the college, which educates more than 6,500 service members and reservists, Johnson said.
"This is something that was really meant to be a retention tool," he said. "People know you need two incomes to maintain a decent quality of life, especially in" regions with high cost of living, such as the Washington, D.C. area.
Johnson said the Department of Defense should make a greater effort to get the word out about military benefits like MyCAA. "DoD doesn't always do a great job of keeping them abreast of their options," he said.
Without advice from military transition specialists, many service members don't sign up for community college classes while they wait the four to six weeks for their GI Bill paperwork to be processed, said Catherine Cornish, veterans resource officer at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md.
During her year of helping military personnel and veterans at AACC, Cornish said without her input, students would delay their education while their benefits were finalized. "They're not sure of the procedures it takes to access the benefits available to them," she said.
Justin Willis, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran majoring in homeland security at AACC, said the complexities of filling out GI Bill paperwork and understanding how to best use the military benefits were made easy by the college's resource officers.
"They've made it so easy for me that I don't even know the process [of accessing GI Bill benefits]," Willis, a Severn resident, said with a laugh. "The whole process went so smoothly. ... I don't know the ins and outs of it, I just know that it's taken care of."
Cornish said that although AACC has a certified Veterans Affairs representative to explain benefits to service members, students should review the benefits they qualify for before they start their education.
"Keeping them informed should be a critical part of the process," Cornish said.
Community colleges' military services officials aren't just useful to veterans when they enter school, but also when they are deployed during the academic year. Johnson from NVCC said service members sometimes face nightmare scenarios in which they are shipped overseas with only a few weeks left in the semester.
Sometimes, professors give the student an "I" for incomplete. If the student can't complete the class online while on deployment - a feat that proves difficult in war zones with little or no Internet connectivity - "the instructor has no other choice but to turn that I into an F," Johnson said.
"A lot of it is managing expectations on the front end so you don't deal with these situations on the back end," he said, adding that students should tell the professor about the possibility of deployment during the semester before classes start. "It's frustrating for a student to have to leave a class right in the middle of it. We know that, and we try to help them out in dealing with that."