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The transition from military life to civilian life can be tough.
Nicole Kerns recalls leaving the Navy after two years of active duty and two additional years as a reservist. She was starting out on a new career path and wanted to go back to school, but finding the right fit wasn’t easy.
“I was still young when I got out and unsure of what to do or where to go outside the Navy's structured environment,” she recalled. “I worked as a medical assistant for a while, continuing what I had done in the Navy. Eventually, I began working for a regional movie theater company, where I stayed for 12 years.”
Today, Kerns is a student in the University of Virginia’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, an online degree program for students who already have some college and want to finish part-time at UVA.
“Since graduating from high school, I had a few false starts with college, but life kept happening, and school kept getting pushed to the back burner,” she said. “The chaos that was 2020 motivated me to try again. I felt that finishing my education goals would help me better understand what was happening in the world, so I started taking classes at the community college while looking into political science and history programs at four-year universities.”
She isn’t alone in turning to UVA after time in the military. In its recent ranking of best colleges for veterans, U.S. News and World Report moved the University of Virginia into the top 10 nationally and fourth among public universities. The rankings rewarded schools who make it easy for veterans to access their educational benefits. Read more about the methodology.
At the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at UVA, which primarily serves nontraditional students, veterans have long had a significant presence.
Today, veterans are about 10 percent of the student body at SCPS, a number that rises to 16 percent when active duty military and dependents are included.
“Our school feels a special kinship with veterans because our students are adult learners,” said Melissa Lubin, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “People need access to education throughout their lives, not just right after they finish high school, and we’re proud to serve our veterans after their service to our country.”
The launch of the Master of Public Safety program, the first graduate program at UVA SCPS, has also helped increase the number of veterans in the school. About one in four students pursuing the MPS degree through SCPS are either veterans, active duty military, or the dependents of veterans or military personnel.
Kenneth Fountain is among the MPS veteran students, serving in the Army Reserve from 1989 to 2011 and retiring as a major. He said returning to his law enforcement career after deployments – including a continuous five-year mobilization – was made easier by resources from the military.
“After 22 years of service, I advise everyone to take advantage of the benefits awarded to you by the GI Bill or Veteran Affairs for your selfless service … It is the least that can be done for you and your family,” Fountain said.
Like Kerns, Joe Haught is a student in the BIS program, finishing his undergraduate degree. He served in the Army National Guard from 2000 to 2012, with two deployments to Iraq and one to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Today, he works as a residential supervisor at a facility for abused and neglected children.
Haught said he’d always wanted to continue his education but was a bit unsure starting out at UVA. But something a professor said on his first day of orientation resonated with him. “She said we all deserve a seat at the table,” Haught recalled.
“I have been a UVA sports fan since I was a child,” said Haught, who had the chance to walk out on the field with other veterans at a UVA football game last year. “I never knew that I would be able to attend UVA, especially as an adult learner with a family. BIS fits well into my family and work life.”
Clint Nichols, another student in the MPS program, first joined the Marine Corps right out of high school – his mom had to sign for him, because he was still 17 at the time.
While in the military, he was deployed to Iraq and said he eventually realized he would need to develop new skills in his civilian life. A pivotal moment came when a gunnery sergeant pulled Nichols to the side and told him that he was good at his job, but that military combat is a young person's game and he should start thinking about going back to school.
That helped motivate Nichols to explore college and eventually the graduate program in public safety at UVA, which he said has been valuable so far.
“The landscape for this profession is constantly changing,” he said. “I am a student of leadership and leadership principles and how humans get things done through other people. And so any opportunity to better my skillset in that arena is welcome.”
Prospective students interested in finding out more about the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies or the Master of Public Safety program can visit the website, and information is also available for veterans and military members.