I’d be lying if I told you that I joined the Marine Corps at age of 25 to protect America against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Born in Australia — and to this day an Australian citizen — I had heard that the U.S. Marines were the toughest and the best at what they do, and I wanted a challenge. And a steady job.

But the main reason for signing on the dotted line nine years ago while living in Richmond, Va., was because the Corps would pay for me to go to school. My recruiter, Staff Sgt. “Big Daddy” Gaddy, a menacing man bursting at the seams of his impeccably pressed dress blues, placed a pile of colorful “benefit tags” in front of me and asked me to pick three that meant the most to me.

The first one I picked up was “Educational Opportunities.”

When I graduated from high school in Sydney in 1991, college was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I traveled the world and made do by working in various bars and nightclubs in Sydney.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun. But I possessed no marketable skills, unless you count mixing a vodka and orange or “pulling” a schooner of nice cold Victoria Bitter.

Realizing I needed an education, I figured the Marine Corps was my way to get it.

I got off to a slow start. I didn’t take one class during my first four years because I deployed too much. A likely excuse and one I’ve heard often from others.

I finally got serious when I was stationed in New York, two-and-a-half years of which were spent as a full-time student while also handling my daily duties as an active-duty Marine. Participating in Hofstra University’s mature-age student’s degree program, aptly named “Saturday College,” I worked Monday through Friday in my military capacity and then went to classes all day on Saturdays and once a month on Sundays. My command was great at ensuring my duty didn’t interfere with the weekend classes.

It was a great program that has sadly been canceled due to a diminishing student enrollment, which I think can partially be blamed on high tuition costs.

Hofstra being a private college, the cost per credit was high. My tuition assistance from the Marine Corps did not cover it all, so I used an option on my GI Bill to pick up most of the remaining cost. I also ended up paying a little out of my pocket. But it was worth it, especially when the credit hours started rolling in. I was earning six credits every eight weeks.

Let me tell you, sitting through lectures on weekends and writing term papers after working all day at the office had me questioning my sanity — and goals — many times.

But the 84 credits I picked up during that time were worth it.

When I transferred commands in New York, I had to withdraw from school because I was required to work Saturdays. I’m not complaining because I know the military is 24/7. And I’m grateful for the opportunity I had at Hofstra.

When I was transferred to Okinawa after two more years in New York, one of my first stops was the base education office.

I am currently enrolled at University of Maryland University College pursuing a bachelor of science in environmental management and hope to have it completed in the next two years.

When I complete my bachelor’s degree, I plan to pursue a master’s in elementary education.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to complete this while on active duty because I would have to student teach, which takes an average of four months depending on various state requirements.

But before then, I have to complete my bachelors.

Currently I am taking a couple of classes, including a computer information systems hybrid class where I complete portions online, as well as attend class once a week.

It’s good to be picking up credits again. And it’s good to have everything — except books — covered by tuition assistance. I know there are folks out there like me who have goals when it comes to education. Goals that can certainly get sidetracked, especially if you’re in the military. But I know that when I leave the military in the next few years, I will not only have my military experience to fall back on, but also a piece of paper that will broaden my chances in the civilian job market.

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