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My home state of California has the largest veteran population in the United States. That’s over 1.8 million veterans, our friends and neighbors, who selflessly put their lives on the line to protect our country. And after returning from bravely serving our nation, I think we can all agree that they deserve the best. Still, so many veterans here and across the country struggle to reintegrate into civilian life following their service.

This is something I know a lot about. I served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a diesel mechanic. While I’m deeply proud of my service and wouldn’t change the experience for the world, finding a path when I came home was a real challenge. I felt like I had been instilled with a great work ethic and strong values but lacked certain skills to compete for employment opportunities in civilian life.

After my service, I just didn’t know how to move forward with my life. Having been out of school for more than a decade, I knew that jumping into a traditional four-year college education wasn’t for me. Still, I worried that a community college experience wouldn’t give me the skills and support I needed.

As a wife and a mother to three children, I needed to find a career that was flexible and well-paid. And as a people person, I wanted something that would allow me to form real connections with others. I was intrigued by the medical profession, but nursing’s 12-hour shifts seemed overwhelming given my family obligations.

After doing some research and talking to others navigating the process of reentry, I realized that a career in dental hygiene could check all my boxes. Unfortunately, training programs for dental hygienists are few and far between in central California. Luckily, San Joaquin Valley College was conveniently located mere miles from my home and had a very reputable program. And like many of my fellow veterans, I was able to apply my GI Bill benefits to cover the cost of my training and education.

Returning to school in my 30s was no easy task. While I worked toward my degree, I had kids at home and a part-time job. My schedule was overwhelming at times, and there were days that I worried I couldn’t do it. But every step of the way I was supported by my professors and mentors who are experienced in teaching nontraditional students like me. I got extra time when I needed it, one-on-one counseling, and, most importantly, the skills I needed to confidently enter the workforce. I am so grateful for the flexibility, support and quality education I received there. At the end of the day, a private career college experience was the perfect fit for me.

It’s thanks to my private career college experience that I now have a job that I love. As a dental hygienist, I have a schedule that I can control, I can support my family, and I get to help people in my community each and every day. It’s been so empowering.

I know I’m not the only veteran who has struggled with this major life transition, either. After the structure and rigor of military life, the question of what’s next can feel daunting. And I know across the country there are so many of my fellow former service men and women who are trying to find their path forward. As someone who has been there, I encourage other veterans to explore all their options, including private career colleges and trade schools. We all have different paths to happiness and success, and it’s vital that we recognize that.

Kelly Castro is a dental hygienist and U.S. Marine Corps veteran. She lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley with her husband and three children.

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