WOODBRIDGE, Va. — We want to shine a light on something you might not have thought about when it comes to the challenges of serving our country. Military spouses say the military lifestyle makes getting a college education a challenge and that has repercussions for their families.
When you marry into the military, you know it's going to be a different kind of life. There will be lots of starting over. Most of these families change locations every two-to-three years. So, something seemingly simple becomes more complicated: How can you get a four-year degree if you'll only be in one place for two years? How can you decide what classes to take when you don't know if your credits will transfer? How can you help support your family if you can't get your education?
“It’s just too hard to have to keep doing this over and over again, to be a constant student and to constantly be trying to better yourself,” Army spouse Jenilyn Hatch said. “It's completely demoralizing to feel like your work doesn't matter.”
Hatch's quest to do something that matters started about eight years ago.
Hatch always wanted to be a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, nurse, and began going to school for it back in Arizona. Then, her husband joined the Army and they were moved to Alabama.
“I looked into colleges there, paid transfer fees, had everything transferred and ready to go to their nursing program,” she described. “I had submitted everything and had my packet ready for the nursing program when we got orders for South Korea.”
From South Korea, they were sent to Washington state, and then to Virginia. Each time, the Army moved them. Each time, her records show new schools wouldn't accept many of her credits.
“You work so hard to get through those classes,” Hatch remembered. “I worked really hard to get good grades, so all of that time and time away from my family that I spent, just to not have it matter at all is demoralizing.”
For Hatch, like many military spouses, it's not only about wasted time or wasted money, but her family's future.
“As a military spouse, when your spouse goes to war, it's your reality that they might not come home,” she said. “That's heartbreaking, because I can't imagine my life without my spouse, but add in that now I'm left alone with these girls that depend on me. And how are you going to do that without an education, you know, to be able to get any job that's acceptable?”
This mom of five has learned she's not alone.
Photos of the Hatch family
“As I talked with other spouses and I've reached out on different platforms, I was honestly humbled and completely amazed at all of these spouse's stories,” she recalled.
“I think every military spouse that I've heard of or know has to deal with this including myself,” said Jennifer Davis of the National Military Family Association.
Davis is also a veteran and a military spouse.
“The longer it takes a military spouse to get an education is probably likely to further when they get employment,” she said. “Just not having that second income and prolonging when that's going to happen can take a toll on the military family's bottom line.”
She believes this is a tricky problem to solve – different schools have different requirements; there are state regulations to consider; certain professions ask for practical hours. It can be different everywhere you go.
It's not a solution, but Davis has one practical piece of advice that could ease the financial burden: some organizations and nonprofits give scholarships to military spouses across the country.
That's how Hatch is now hoping to finally finish her nursing degree at Northern Virginia Community College. She received about $7,000 from the Dominion Energy Fellows Program. She is one of 13 Dominion Energy Fellows.
“I want to prove to my daughters that an education is attainable in any, with any obstacle that you have, that you can overcome,” Jeni added.
She is now working with the senator in her home state of Arizona to see what broader solutions are possible. We've been in contact with Senator Martha McSally's office, as well as other lawmakers, and we will keep you posted on any big picture progress.