After 28 years of service in the U.S. Army, Sandra Husband decided to go to college to pursue a college degree.

She had received a job out of the military, working as an intelligence officer as a contractor, she said, but when her contract ended, she was left looking for another job.

At that point, she said to herself, “You know what, maybe if I better myself, I’ll be a better candidate,” she said. “So I decided to come back to school.”

Husband started her educational journey at the College of Southern Maryland in 2017. She picked CSM — deemed a “Military Friendly” school consecutively for five years — because it was near her home and had programs that appealed to her, she said. She had also been looking for a place where “if I need[ed] to pull back a little bit, it’d be okay to pull back and it’s acceptable to not necessarily take a full load.”

“I found it to be, really, a good place to start considering I had not been in school for a number of years,” said Husband, who had served in communications and intelligence fields while in the Army. “The teaching, the instructions were excellent. The instructors were excellent. The teaching environment was really welcoming. … I’d recommend it to just about anyone and everyone who’s thinking about going back to school, especially if you’re thinking about going back, starting out as part-time.”

She graduated in May of 2019 with a degree in cybersecurity, a subject that interested her in the past. During her time in the service, Husband was injured and placed in the Wounded Warriors program. It was within this time that she had a two-week class on cybersecurity taught by a professor from the University of Mississippi, she said.

“I’m like, well, this is something I could definitely do if I don’t want to stay within the intel[ligence] field or if I need to change fields,” she said. “It peaked my interest.”

‘Veterans identify with veterans’

Husband, who is taking one class at CSM this semester and pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland Global Campus, and students who “identified as a veteran … or a spouse or dependent of a veteran” make up about 9% to 10% of the total student body, said Chris Zimmermann, director of financial assistance and veterans benefits at CSM.

“CSM is very veteran friendly,” Husband said, but not a lot of veterans self-identify, which “makes it a challenge to offer certain assistance to them.” When Husband first attended the college, she wanted to speak to a veterans counselor, she said, but it took a bit of time to find the specific person. “It left me in a state where I was, like, lost and ... trying to find information,” she said.

One of the people who helped Husband find her way was the president of CSM’s Student Veterans Organization, a group which she joined and eventually became the vice president.

Being a part of the organization “helped me a lot … when I first started, I was totally in a shell,” she said. “When I first started, I’m like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ And really ‘Should I be taking all these classes at one time?’ And ‘Can I do it and are there any other veterans going through the same thing or have gone through something similar?’ And I was very happy to find out that … we have students who are like myself.”

That’s part of the reason Bill Buffington, chief executive director of VConnections Inc., helped found the student organization in 2013. “Veterans identify with veterans,” he said. “If you have a veteran resource center or a veteran organization on campus, it’s going to be instrumental in helping that veteran with that transition to an academic level of performance.”

Making the transition

When members of the service leave the military, they face a lot of transitions from within the community and family to furthering education or finding a job. “Transition is huge when you walk through that gate at a military base and you’re discharged and you now have to take on a whole different responsibility,” Buffington said.

When he left the Navy, Buffington had a job right away and was able to take care of his family, he said. “But was I fully prepared and was I fully aware of all the things I could still have access to and … would need to be more successful as far as education? I wasn’t aware because there was nobody there to [help] and no resources there to help me and nor did I look for the resources,” he explained. “So when we talk transition, it’s not an easy word for a service member.”

But resources, when they’re visible and known to veterans and their families, have the potential to make the transition a little easier. Besides the Student Veterans Organization at CSM, students at the college have access to the Mobile Vet Center — available to the public as well — on the first Wednesday of every month at the La Plata campus and third Wednesdays at the Leonardtown campus.

The program, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, serves to “bring access to services to where the veterans are,” said Zimmermann, and provides veterans with information on programs, benefits, housing and more in “one central location.”

“The fact that were able to get a regular schedule … that they’ve committed to coming to our campuses, really is a great benefit for our students,” Zimmermann added.

In addition, at CSM veteran students are able to meet with George Hawley from the Maryland Department of Labor. Hawley, Zimmermann said, comes to help student veterans search and prepare for jobs and related aspects. He visits the La Plata campus on the first Wednesday of the month, Leonardtown campus on the second Wednesday and Prince Fredrick campus on the third Wednesday.

CSM also provides specific staff that act as primary points of contact to help student veterans with academic advising, course planning and more, Zimmermann said. They also have professional counselors that work closely with students.

For more information on resources available to veterans at CSM, visit csmd.edu/veterans.

Finding non-traditional educational opportunities

Of course, there are more options for education besides going back to college. Some veterans may choose to start an apprenticeship, which is what John Bryant did. After serving in the Air Force for six months and leaving after an injury, Bryant knew he “needed more education,” he said in an email interview. “So I went to college for a couple of years but I never had a clear idea what career I wanted to pursue.” It took him some time, but he eventually found an answer through an apprenticeship.

“When I found out about the apprenticeship, it seemed like a perfect fit, with many different avenues to explore,” he said.

Bryant’s apprenticeship was with the NECA/IBEW Local 26 JATC in Lanham to become an electrician, “[m]ore specifically an inside journeyman wireman,” he said. “I decided on this career path because it involved a lot of mathematics and problem solving, two areas in which I feel I excel.”

It wasn’t through any resource that Bryant found the apprenticeship but rather through a connection. “My father-in-law works in the union and explained to me all of the possibilities and benefits that came with it. I started working as a helper, took the test for the apprenticeship and passed the interview,” the Charles County native said. “I wish more emphasis would have been placed on trades while I was still in high school. That would have enabled me to begin my journey to becoming an electrician much sooner.”

Now, four months after graduating, Bryant said he hopes he “will be able to build a solid career as a union electrician and provide a comfortable quality of life for my wife and two sons.”

His advice to other veterans looking to further their education is to “explore all of their options and find something that interests them.”

Additional resources

Beyond the Mobile Vet Center, there are other resources available to veterans in Southern Maryland. CSM offers discounted membership to its fitness center for veterans, Zimmermann said. They also host an annual Veterans Recognition Ceremony. This year, they will be unveiling a new Veterans Recognition coin, designed by CSM Veteran Affairs Coordinator Laticia Ragin, Zimmermann said.

Veterans in the community can also reach out to VConnections. Run by Buffington, VConnections is a nonprofit founded to connecting Southern Maryland veterans and their families with available resources, including educational, community and health and wellness resources, per its website. VConnections does this by making partnerships with organizations and institutions, Buffington said.

In addition to providing resources, VConnections hosts coffee breaks at various fast-food restaurants, like the Chick-Fil-A in La Plata, and pays visits to veterans in their homes through the Veterans Homebound Visiting Program, among other initiatives.

“We owe it to these women and men and these families that have sacrificed. We owe it to make sure that we’re providing the best we can provide to our veterans and our families,” Buffington said. “That’s a given.”

To learn more about VConnections and for a list of resources, visit vconnections.org.

Twitter: @AlexIndyNews

Twitter: @AlexIndyNews