How I Got My College Degree for Free

The Army National Guard Paid for It

Between the Army National Guard’s Federal tuition assistance, State tuition assistance, and GI Bill, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ryan West earned his bachelor’s degree for free.

He estimates that between the special military rates offered by the schools he attended and the Guard’s education benefits, he has saved $30,000 to $40,000 in tuition and fees.

Without the Guard picking up the tab, SFC West’s other options to pay for school were using his GI Bill from his previous active duty service in the Army or student loans.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I was raised in a single-parent home, there just wasn’t money for college,” he explains.

SFC West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, has had a few stops and starts on his way to earning that degree. He had started college before joining the Army in 1998, but, “It didn’t work out for me. The money wasn’t there, plus I wasn’t that disciplined.”

So, he joined the military, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.

“I’m from a small town, Hopkins, South Carolina, so I wanted to get out and see the world, see new places, and meet new people,” says SFC West. “And, of course, defend my country. There’s nothing like it. You get a great reward from serving.”

After leaving active duty in 2002, SFC West wanted to continue his service, so he joined the Guard because he liked the idea of serving part-time, especially so he could go back to school.

But then he deployed to Iraq, which marked a complete turnaround in how he looked at his career.

“Prior to that, I was just a traditional Guardsman, just going through the motions, coming to drill. I didn’t really have aspirations of going higher in the ranks or being better than what I was.”

Experiencing what he did while deployed in Iraq as a 68W Healthcare Specialist (combat medic) – the inhumanity of war and even meeting new people from different places, made him realize he could reach higher.

It was after coming home that SFC West realized all of the Guard benefits he could use to complete his degree.

“You get funds from three different sources, which is great,” SFC West says. “You don’t get that in the Reserves, and you don’t get that in the regular Army.”

The Guard offers Federal tuition assistance. Plus, each State or Territory offers State tuition assistance, but note that each State or Territory has its own rules and policies. Finally, the GI Bill can pick up the tab for books, fees, or really anything. This money is a monthly expense allowance paid directly to the student, not the school.

 

SFC West and his family at his college graduation.

Armed with all of these financial resources and a renewed sense of purpose, SFC West re-started his studies at Limestone College in South Carolina, but then decided to take a full-time job with the Guard. As 2014 came into view, he decided to go back to school “to finish this thing before I retire,” finally earning his bachelor’s in organizational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

And, he might not be done using up all those education benefits. He still has some of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to transfer to his children, and he can still use the Guard’s tuition assistance to earn a master’s degree he’s thinking about getting.

His advice for anyone joining the Guard is: “Let the Guard get the most out of you, and you get the most out of the Guard.”

And that means taking advantage of all the opportunities it offers, including making the most of the education benefits.

“That paycheck means nothing if you stay five or six years and you don’t have a degree – a free degree,” he says.

So if you’re looking for a way to pay for college, or even vocational school, the Guard offers those benefits and more, like training in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to field artillery and logistics. You can explore all of the Guard’s career fields on our job board.

And, for personalized advice, including specifics on your State’s education benefits because the information varies from State to State, contact your local recruiter.

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Kansas Guard Provides Humanitarian Support During Golden Coyote

RED SHIRT, S.D. – Soldiers from the Kansas Army National Guard and Army Reserve units worked with Task Force 38, Canadian Army, to provide humanitarian support to Native American reservations throughout South Dakota during the Golden Coyote training exercise last month.

The annual timber haul operation provides an opportunity for military forces to use their training and experience while supporting local Native American communities.

“This mission is really important because it builds relationships between the Native American communities and the National Guard units that support the mission,” says Sergeant (SGT) Shaun Phillips, an 88M Truck Driver with the 137th Transportation Company, Kansas National Guard.

The 137th coordinated with the other units to load timber at a site near Custer, S.D. The timber was then delivered to multiple sites on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

“It’s great to help other communities, and this kind of mission is very similar to the missions we could be tasked with overseas,” says Specialist William Curtin, 137th truck driver.

Soldiers from the 137th Transportation Company, Kansas Army National Guard, loosen straps on a load of timber at Red Shirt, S.D., during the annual timber haul operation as part of the Golden Coyote training exercise. (Photo by Sgt. Kristin Lichius.)

Soldiers from the 137th Transportation Company, Kansas Army National Guard, loosen straps on a load of timber at Red Shirt, S.D., during the annual timber haul operation as part of the Golden Coyote training exercise. (Photo by Sgt. Kristin Lichius.)

The humanitarian support benefits the community members and provides new training experiences for Soldiers.

“There are narrow, winding roads and various terrain conditions here that provide experience for our drivers and prepares us for different environments,” says SGT Phillips. “We’re able to practice improvising different kinds of loads safely, using our equipment and operating as a team.”

Throughout the Golden Coyote training exercise, about 200 loads of timber were scheduled to be delivered to the local communities.

“It’s a good thing, it helps this community and other surrounding communities that need this wood,” says Peter Bissonette, a resident from Red Shirt.

The wood is often used for construction, heating, cooking, and ceremonies throughout the year.

“This is the unit’s third year participating in this mission, and it’s rewarding to give back to the communities,” says SGT Phillips.

If you are interested in joining the Army National Guard to serve your community and Nation part-time, there are many career options available. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, including those in infantry, transportation, and engineering. You can check out the full roster of opportunities on our job board. Make sure you have a look at the Guard’s benefits, including money for college.

From an original story by SGT Kristin Lichius,129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, which originally appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in June 2018.

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Soldier/Pageant Winner Says You Don’t Have to Give up Being ‘Girly’ to Serve in the Guard

AUSTIN, Texas — The southernmost tip of Texas falls into what is colloquially known as “The Valley.” No one really knows why it’s called this; the actual Rio Grande Valley and the nearest mountains are hundreds of miles away.

The land is flat, tropical, and the home of a predominantly Hispanic population.

It was there, in what she calls the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” town of Premont, that Army Staff Sergeant (SSG) San Juanita Escobar, of the Texas Army National Guard, took the first steps that would both change her life and the lives of hundreds of young women in Texas and around the world.

These first steps consisted of beauty pageants in the nearby and even smaller town of Concepcion, where pageant competitions are often the source of longstanding family rivalries, and defending a title is a matter of honor. Back then, few anticipated that this south Texas girl from the Valley would rise to the title of Mrs. Texas Galaxy.

A Family Tradition

“Pageants were always something that my family did,” SSG Escobar says. “We had the crown for years, so it was something you just did when you reached a certain age. After that, I competed in several smaller, regional pageants and county fairs.”

Those pageants led to small, local modeling jobs and eventually to auditions in California. But as much as SSG Escobar dreamed of getting out of the small town she lived in, she decided this was not the path she wanted to follow. Commitments at home made her decline the audition callbacks.

“At the time, I wasn’t going to pick up and move to California,” she says. “I had sports, school, and my friends that were more important to me. I also didn’t want to do that to the rest of my siblings, so I put all that on the back burner.”

SSG San Juanita Escobar, a recruiter with the Texas Army National Guard.

SSG San Juanita Escobar, a Soldier with the Texas Army National Guard. (Photo by SGT Steve Johnson).

Joining the Guard

SSG Escobar stayed in Premont, filling every spare moment of time with studies, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, tennis, and band, until one day during her senior year, a recruiter from the Texas Army Guard approached her.

And in a matter of days, everything changed.

“When the Army National Guard recruiter came and talked to me, and explained the education benefits, I was sold, and it became a matter of, ‘How fast can we do this?’” SSG Escobar recalls. “So, I met my recruiter on Tuesday, and I was enlisted by Friday.”

The abruptness of her decision came as a shock to family and friends. But while joining the military was a leap into unknown territory for SSG Escobar and her family, the lure of education and travel while serving close to home was irresistible to the 17-year-old.

“I never really knew much about the military,” she says. “When they told me I could serve part-time, serve my country, still make a change in the world, better my community, and still get my education, that’s really what made the Army National Guard stand out from the other services.”

Basic Training

In July 2008, SSG Escobar finally left the small town of her childhood for basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. It was her first time really being away from home and family. Without them, she said, she had to discover and nurture new internal strengths to help her get through some of the tougher moments on her path to becoming a Soldier.

“My strength to continue was knowing that this was something that I truly wanted,” she says. “I knew it was going to change my life for the better, and I knew it would make my family proud.”

Her competitive nature also helped get her through.

“I’m very competitive,” she says. “I always want to win and be the best, so I used that as my driving force.”

After completing basic and then Advanced Individual Training, SSG Escobar returned to Texas, and was assigned to the 368th Engineer Battalion in Corpus Christi. There, she worked in personnel administration, processing paperwork of Soldiers who were deploying. It was also while there that she quickly began to feel like it wasn’t enough.

“I was there for maybe two drills before I started seeing that all my friends were deploying. I really loved the Army National Guard active life, so I volunteered to deploy,” she says.

Soon enough, SSG Escobar headed to the African nation of Djibouti with the Texas Army Guard’s 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment as a member of the security forces element for a civil affairs team.

Helping Other Women

While in Africa, the future Mrs. Texas Galaxy saw a problem, and in a move that would come to be a hallmark of her military career, she decided to help solve it.

“While I was assigned to the civil affairs team, I helped create the Women’s Initiative Program in Ethiopia,” SSG Escobar says. “Because of how high the school dropout rate is for young women, we developed special groups to go to different villages and orphanages to educate and empower them to speak to their political figures, and to also inform other women about different political and medical issues.”

In many parts of Africa, women are routinely subjected to discrimination and violence by virtue of tradition or customs, SSG Escobar says. Her team addressed these issues head-on through a combination of education and strength.

“The women always felt alone, like it was them against everyone,” says SSG Escobar. “So, we brought groups together for school, and we would teach them that if males don’t want to help them, they can help each other.”

That effort fostered an environment of empowerment, she says, adding that it “let them know that their internal strength could be used to benefit each other.”

At first, the groups were made up of young women between the ages of 18 to 23, but eventually would reach out to thousands of girls and women of all ages.

The Women’s Initiative Program also worked closely with other programs designed to improve education and raise awareness of HIV and AIDS to expand its reach even further. With a push from then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, it led to an outreach in 13 different countries that focused on teaching women to advocate for themselves.

When that mission was over, SSG Escobar returned home and became a recruiter for the Texas Army National Guard so she could continue to change young people’s lives the way her own life was changed.

“My motivation was that I knew where I started, and I know where I’m at now,” she says. “I just want to tell people that there’s going to be light if that’s what they choose, if they choose to turn their challenges into a positive.”

Serving as a recruiter, in some ways, also brought her right back to old family traditions.

“When I would talk to students, the females would always say, ‘Oh, I’m too girly to serve in the military,’ or they would worry they weren’t going to be able to ‘be girly.’”

Those comments, in part, led her to return to pageants like the ones of her youth.

Texas Army National Guard Soldier and Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG San Juanita Escobar, poses for photos with her husband, Luis Escobar, after winning the Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant, in March 2018.

Texas Army National Guard Soldier and Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG San Juanita Escobar, poses for photos with her husband, Luis Escobar, after winning the Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant, in March 2018. (Photo courtesy of Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant).

Return to Beauty Pageants

“I started doing beauty pageants again,” SSG Escobar says. “I would go into schools and show them a pageant picture, but I would be there in uniform, and I would say, ‘You can’t tell me you can’t do this.’ It was after that I started seeing more of an ‘I can do this’ attitude.”

Going back to the pageant world after serving as a Soldier gave SSG Escobar a unique perspective. She says she drew on those experiences and prepared as rigorously as she would for a military mission, using the training and confidence she gained while serving to make her an even tougher and more determined competitor.

After three years, SSG Escobar left the recruiting world to dedicate more time to school but she was still competing in pageants.

In March, she was crowned Mrs. Texas Galaxy, and is moving on to an international competition this month, where she represents Texas against dozens of competitors from all over the world. Despite this potential for international celebrity, her primary focus remains serving those in need.

As Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG Escobar focuses on highlighting suicide prevention for veterans and spreading suicide awareness. And, as a member of the Texas Army National Guard, she focuses on helping others, both around the world and at home in Texas.

“As a member of the National Guard I have been able to go to multiple countries, but I have also been able to serve stateside,” SSG Escobar says. “I saw the impact of what it meant when our Soldiers went in to help during Hurricane Harvey, and how much our citizens appreciated that. To me that’s important because these are our friends and family. Who is going to take care of them better than us, ourselves?”

If you have an interest in joining the Army National Guard to serve your country and community, there are plenty of options available, all while serving part-time. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, including infantry and engineering. You can check out the full roster of possibilities on our job board. Be sure to take a look at the Guard’s outstanding benefits, including money for college.

From an original story by Army SGT Steve Johnson, 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, which originally appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in June 2018.

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