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Graduation Day

by Bianca Strzalkowski

The Strzalkowski family, including Bianca’s husband Ron and their three boys. Bianca admits it can be a challenge to make college a priority around the demands of raising children and managing a busy military career. But, as one spouse explained, if you don’t make it a priority no one will.

I started college in 1999. Yes, I was a freshman before Facebook was even a thing.

At the time, my biggest responsibilities included stocking my dorm of Pop Tarts (the freshman 15 is a real thing) and rolling out of bed in time to make it to class just a few feet away. I guess it was too easy, or my focus wasn’t there, because I left that school after just one year to join my then-boyfriend at his first duty station. My young love for that Marine far surpassed any personal satisfaction for that degree I was just beginning.

From that point on, college always eluded me. My relationship with school has been off and on, and at each and every location we have lived, I have taken some notches off my degree requirements. It was the one individual thing for myself that transcended the chaos that accompanies loving a military member, raising babies, and working when there are bills to pay.

To the military spouses out there who feel like it is impossible to achieve something for you in this roller coaster life, I am here to tell you that you are worth it and you can do it.

With each PCS move, I transferred schools and, in turn, lost credits. A loss of credits meant a loss of time and money, and so I fell into a cycle of retaking courses or having to meet different guidelines at the next school. Even though I prefer the human interaction offered by a brick-and-mortar school, I finally got wise and found a school that wouldn’t be interrupted by the components of this life — the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). It was all online.

While some of my obstacles to graduation day were due to military life, other times they were self inflicted. Shortly after relocating to that first duty station, unprecedented times happened as the country grappled with September 11th and any sense of calm in the military community was gone. The op tempo changed and that then boyfriend, who became my husband, left frequently. We also made the decision to grow our family.

But it was a fellow military spouse’s advice years ago that finally helped me understand why I was falling short. Janet McIntosh, an Army wife and friend, told me that nobody is going to treat my college goal as a priority if I don’t. All these years I spread my time across so many commitments — family, volunteering, jobs, fun opportunities, etc — I wasn’t committing like I needed to be. And, so I stopped. I stopped saying yes to everything and I scaled back massively on formal and informal volunteerism, which is hard, because there are so many benefits to participating in those activities.

I also stopped feeling entitled to things. Entitled to catching up on DVR, entitled to a night out, or entitled to skip an assignment because I was too tired. I was finally all in, and guess what? It worked.

So here I am, about to walk across a stage as someone hands me that piece of paper that holds so much value to me. And, I am not too modest to admit that I am so very proud of myself because this would have been a very easy thing to quit at so many stages. I have had incredible opportunities even without that degree accomplishment on my resume, but this was far too important. Plus, my boys, my three sons, they will sit in that audience and hear there mom’s name called (probably that last name butchered) and they will know you don’t ever quit on yourself. Ever.

To the military spouses out there who feel like it is impossible to achieve something for you in this roller coaster life, I am here to tell  you that you are worth it and you can do it. While your path to that goal may not be straightforward, it may have a whole lot of detours, never let your dreams get lost in the overwhelming responsibilities of life happening. Find something solely for yourself and work at it, even if your effort can only be a little at a time. You will get your graduation day.

Tips for Military Spouse Students:

1) Before you commit to a college schedule, look ahead At the start of every semester, I was always so excited to register that I often took on more than I should. Discuss upcoming commitments with your service member so that you have a full picture of just how much will be on your plate. Will they be leaving for training or a deployment? Is there PCS orders in your future? Do your kids play sports and their schedules will be full? Build a clear picture of your responsibilities, then set your schedule.

2) Remind yourself that you are a college student This point is especially important if you attend school online. A fellow spouse suggested ordering some school memorabilia to feel ‘part’ of the college experience. Mine was a coffee mug.

3) Schedule time for schoolwork There is never enough time in a day for all that has to happen, whether it be sleep or exercise or homework. Block out reasonable amounts of time so that you are not cramming to get assignments done.

4) Designate a study space Find a place in your house where you can do dedicated learning, or, if your house is busy like mine, check out local coffee shops or the base library.

5) Hold yourself accountable by making it your priority Be open with family, friends, and your supervisor that you are enrolled in school and it will require x amount of your time. Commit to scaling back on any extracurricular activities. This is just a short chapter of your life, you can resume your favorite undertakings after you are done or when you are on a break.

6) Be your biggest cheerleader Own your success and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back for each milestone during your college career.

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