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By Kimberlee Ratliff, Ed. D.
Program Director, M.Ed. School Counseling, American Military University
I often hear military spouses express a sense of hopelessness when it comes to reaching personal educational and career goals due to the transient military lifestyle. The obstacles to those goals seem overwhelming or even insurmountable.
My husband and I got married while I was in college. I had to decide whether to stay at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) to finish my senior year or move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with him. As a newlywed, I couldn’t imagine us living apart. I reluctantly left my beloved EKU after three full years of study and found a new home at Fayetteville State University.
After graduating from Fayetteville State with my bachelor’s in psychology, I applied to Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, for a master’s in school counseling. My program totaled 54 credit hours and there was no guarantee that a move would not be in our near future. My husband’s unaccompanied tour to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then his reassignment to Ft. Bragg allowed me to finish my master’s degree in one place.
In 2008, I successfully defended my dissertation and achieved my doctorate degree from Argosy University in Sarasota, Florida. This hybrid program allowed me to travel to campus for classes and then complete other requirements from home. My commute was 11 hours one way and each class had a full week residency at a time.
I had to schedule my on-campus class time primarily during work breaks – winter break, spring break and summertime. Classes were held from 8-5, Monday through Friday. Was it an easy process? No, I endured some significant hardships during my educational journey.
Was getting my advanced education worth it? Absolutely.
Deployments Are a Constant Challenge for Military Spouses
My husband served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, starting out as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. After several duty station changes throughout his career, he was able to finish his last two years of service back in the 82nd. Until my husband’s retirement, deployments were a constant challenge while I pursued my career as a school counselor, a counselor educator and a faculty member of American Military University.
While working as a school counselor and working on my doctorate courses, I remember reading my required readings as if they were bedtime stories to my infant son. I would type my papers with my son bouncing on my leg and have to wrestle his fingers from adding unnecessary characters to my work.
Other times, I had to sacrifice sleep and do some major work on my dissertation late at night after my son was in bed. Time management took on a whole new meaning while working full time, going to school full time, and parenting full time while my husband was far away.
Among my duties as a program director is to attend the annual commencement exercise. During one deployment, I had to take my children out of school and find a friend to accompany us to the APUS commencement activities.
Another time when my husband was in Afghanistan, I had to attend a professional counseling conference in San Francisco. A good friend living at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky at the time volunteered to help babysit while I was at the conference, so I purchased her plane ticket to meet us in San Francisco and once again packed up the boys and brought them with me.
Some military spouses chose to return to their hometown or close to family when their spouse is deployed. Having a career everywhere we lived, that was not a possibility for me. I had to learn my own ways of managing and coping with the juggling act of working, parenting, continuing my education and other life obligations.
I made sacrifices, but I didn’t give up on my own dreams and goals. By sharing my story, I hope to empower other military spouses who may have given up on their career goals or thought a career wasn’t possible.
Seven Tips for Building a Successful Career
What does it take to achieve your educational and career goals during military life? It’s not easy, but it’s possible. Here are seven tips:
1. Stay Determined – There will be moments when you feel like giving up. Keeping your goal of a career in mind and staying focused on the bigger picture will help you keep moving toward that goal. Expect challenges and plan how you will overcome them.
2. Be Flexible – Select a school that offers flexible programs, particularly if you are in the midst of moving or playing single parent during a deployment. Consider an online school that offers flexible course schedules and permits small enrollment breaks so as not to slow your progress toward your goal.
However, be careful not to take extended breaks. An extended break may cause you to lose focus on your goal and make excuses for not returning to the classroom to finish your education. Keep in mind that educational programs and career requirements always evolve. Staying away from your classes for too long can result in the loss of valuable course credits and a delayed graduation.
3. Find a Reliable Support System – Make a list of people who will be your support system and create a plan to enlist their support when it’s needed. It is helpful to find a support system both locally and among friends and family who might be willing to assist.
Without the help of my own friends and family throughout my 21-year journey as a military spouse, I would have risked losing my job or not completing my education. Characteristics of a good support system include someone who is dependable, has the time available to assist and may be able to rearrange their schedule to help, even with short notice.
Although you typically have some notice about deployments, there are unplanned events that may come up or scheduled trainings that you have less time to plan for. Having someone ready to help at a moment’s notice can relieve the stress.
4. Plan Your Degree Program Carefully – Understanding all your degree requirements and having a plan to meet those requirements will ease your frustrations. If a practicum and internship is part of your degree requirements, it is not the best time to move to another duty station. Moves are not always predictable, so you should always have a Plan B and Plan C for your coursework if your desired career path includes a degree program with off-campus requirements, such as an internship.
5. Do Your Research and Due Diligence – State requirements regarding licenses vary, so it is important to understand how to achieve licensing if your career requires one. Become familiar with reciprocal licensing agreements across states when notified of a relocation. You may find in your research that the state to which you will be moving requires a different exam or other documentation from your current state.
Some states provide fast paths to licensure for military spouses. When I applied for my mental health license in Washington State, for example, military spouses could expedite their licensure process and reduce the time needed to review their required documentation for license approval.
6. Have a Mentor – Find a mentor in your desired career field. If that person is also a military spouse, he or she can provide insight and guidance on how to navigate the challenges you may face. A mentor often provides advice that will save you time and effort in the long run.
7. Timing Is Everything – It is never too late to pursue your dreams. If you gave up on your career goals a long time ago and now want to return to school, go for it. You don’t have to wait until your spouse retires from the military and moving is no longer a barrier. In any case, online education provides opportunities that were once unthinkable in a transient lifestyle.
Now more than ever, military spouses have the opportunity to complete their education through online degree programs. These new online options have opened a wealth of opportunities to career fields that were once limited to local education programs. Access to many quality education programs are now at your fingertips.
Supporting your military spouse is important, but it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own educational and career goals. If there is a will, there is a way.
About the Author
Dr. Ratliff holds an Ed.D. in counseling psychology, an M.Ed. in school counseling and a B.S. in psychology. She has been with APUS since September 2010 and is a Professor and Program Director of School Counseling. She is a Licensed Mental Health Health Counselor (LMHC, WA), National Certified Counselor (NCC), a National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), a K-12 Certified School Counselor (VA & WA), and a Trauma and Loss School Specialist with 12 years of experience as an elementary and middle school counselor.
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