In 1999, as an energetic teenager, I started college in New Jersey. At the time, my now-husband was going through boot camp and his initial training in the Marine Corps. My desire to be where his boots were planted led me to a second college, just a year later. The rest of my educational story sounds the same, transfer upon transfer because of military moves or dropping a semester entirely because of life happening.
Fast forwarding to 2012: By now I should have earned a PhD with all of the schooling under my belt. And yet I am still longing to complete my bachelor's degree.
My story isn't unique. It's common among the military spouses of the U. S. Armed Forces to readjust our sails repeatedly as we navigate military life. Yet, fortunately, we share a common characteristic: tenacity. I believe education is the foundation of being anything in life. It may not necessarily take the form of a four-year degree, but some version of formalized education is vital.
The time has come to rally our academic institutions to design programs that adapt to our lives rather than us trying to fit the cookie-cutter mold of traditional college students. Our lives are anything but traditional. And so I'm trying to make that happen.
I think back to those first few years of school, when I was raising our son, working full-time, volunteering and attempting to maintain a 12-credit semester. In a post-9/11 world full of combat deployments, I should have been more realistic. I learned that doing it all at once just wasn't possible, and I watched many of my peers learn the same thing. Those experiences led me to create the Military Spouse Education Initiative (MSEI).
Military Spouse magazine created the Military Spouse of the Year program to create advocates within our community. Once they awarded me the title, it was my shot to make a difference. And so it's been a busy year. Since the creation of the MSEI in July 2011, I have met with our Congressional leadership, educational organizations, the Department of Education, and more importantly, with the women and men that this epidemic is affecting. It's an epidemic of being told they can't pursue dreams because military life is too demanding. That belief stops here, with me and those who are on-board with making the MSEI a reality.
Like our service members, we have a drive that makes us believe in the American dream. Within the communities where the Department of Defense plants us, we want to be leaders, business owners and professionals. With initiatives in place like Joining Forces, things are beginning to happen. Our neighbors are being asked to find a way to assist "the team."
One example of the commitment to the education of our military families is the programs being created by military-friendly schools. Some higher education institutions are broadening veteran-based programs to include military spouses. Last week, I attended the VA ACME conference, where I met representatives from schools like University of Maryland's University College, Coastline Community College and Strayer University who have flexible course schedules and special tuition rates to meet our educational needs.
Beyond assisting military spouses with tuition funding, the MSEI includes two other components: Volunteer Experience to College Credit and Course Transferability. Over 80% of our spouses volunteer within their communities, and I know firsthand the valuable skillsets that come from that experience.
That should translate into college credit. And given that the military requires us to move frequently, I'd like to see a state mandate that encourages schools that receive government funding to adopt smoother course transferability. (You can guess how much time and money I've spent during four college transfers taking courses I've already taken elsewhere.)
Every community of people deserves a voice. For 2011, the voice for my community just happened to be a loud one from Jersey focused on education as Military Spouse magazine's 2011 Military Spouse of the Year. In May, at the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, we will name our next advocate, our next leader who will apply their own passions to the fight they choose. As my role fades, my commitment to the 1.1 million patriots I serve with will not go away - it will transfer to the hyper-local online community I'm helping build called baseguide.com. (It's made for military spouses, but you're welcome to visit, too.)
We are part of the greatest nation on Earth, and the American dream lives on in communities around our country. I will never stop believing in our ability as a country to achieve all we set out to achieve.
For more information on HuffPost Impact's Military Families Week, click here.