Tag Archives: education

From C-Average to PhD: You Can Excel in the STEM Field, Too!

In high school, I wanted to become an artist and live a fabulous life in San Francisco painting the portraits of vacationers from around the world. It was when my high school biology teacher, Mr. Vince Bicocca, first took notice in my contentment with a C-average GPA, that my path to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) was suddenly ignited.

He encouraged me to study for the next exam by just spending a little time every night reviewing the textbook material. To my astonishment, my efforts were well justified and I received an A. As I continued to push myself to understand the material, I soon came to a subsequent, yet equally astonishing realization: I really enjoyed the science material I was reading! I began opting for science courses to pack my high school schedule, and thanks to the availability of scholarships and government grants, I was able to consider college as a plausible option.

I was soon a graduating high school senior, awaiting the results from several universities to which I applied. However, as the college acceptance letters began to arrive, my world was shattered when my mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, passing away only a few short months thereafter. This palpable heartache only further fueled my desire to pursue a STEM career, and it was through her loss and unwavering belief in my limitless potential, that I was now determined to dedicate my life to the field of oncology, and continue her fight against cancer.

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That fall, I began my Bachelors Degree in Molecular Biology at University of Califoria, Davis (UCD), adjusting to the rigorous and studious life of an undergraduate in STEM. I was a first generation college attendee, and there were many times where I questioned my abilities and was afraid I would be inadequate for a life in science.

However, I was determined to persevere, and remain a strong role model for my two siblings to not relent to fear, and thus continued forward in pursuit of a college degree. I sought outlets where I could further develop my passions and interests, and soon became an active member of Relay for Life, a twenty-four hour event that raises money for the American Cancer Society, as well as served as an undergraduate researcher in a plant pathology lab on campus.

As my senior year approached, I started to seek out graduate institutions for a PhD in Biochemistry. One obstacle stood in my way: due to my first couple of college years where I struggled to excel in class, my GPA, although sufficient for admission, was not impressive. In those beginning years, I wish I had known just how important those recorded numbers would be for my continuation in academia. I still did not let this deter me, and considered masters programs that could serve as a stepping stone on my way to a PhD. I was soon accepted for the Masters of Science program at San Francisco State University in Biochemistry, and my path through the sciences continued.

During my MS, I first witnessed the impact that I could make as an educator through my personal engagement with students struggling in class. These students included those who could not afford outside tutoring, as well as many women who wavered on whether they should continue in a STEM major. I took careful note of the students who struggled, many of which were women who were the first to seek higher education in their families. As no student desires to fail, I believed that perhaps by spending some time encouraging their personal growth, I could prevent these women from switching out of STEM.

After completion of my Masters degree with high marks, I was accepted into the Chemistry PhD program at UCD in Bio-organic Chemistry with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology (DEB), where I now hold a 4.0 GPA amidst research, teaching, tutoring, and volunteering. When I began surveying research labs, I felt a strong kinship to my now PhD research mentor Dr. Sheila David, an expert in DNA repair research who alongside her many duties as a full professor, is a loving mom to two young daughters.

In her lab, I have mentored several undergraduates as well as new graduate students, many of which were women who I encouraged to apply for scholarships and research conferences. My efforts for outreach did not stop there, and in conjunction with the Biotechnology program and one of my other fierce woman mentors and faculty advisor for the DEB, Dr. Judith Kjelstrom, I co-founded the “Women in Leadership” seminar series, which helps empower women to pursue leadership roles in STEM fields. Dr. Kjelstrom is a champion example of a military spouse in STEM, who after having children and endured the rigors of military life with her husband, a major in the USAF and navigator during the Vietnam War, she went back to school to pursue and complete her PhD, and now serves as the Director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program.

Dr. Kjelstrom connected me with Cari Lyn Vinci, founder of InVINCible Enterprises and author of the book titled “Playbook for Teens”, of which I am a featured role model in the series. Cari strives to encourage young bright females to pursue STEM careers, especially girls who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. She has provided me with numerous outreach opportunities to connect with and encourage middle school girls who are just beginning to consider possible careers.

In my future research profession, I hope to serve as a role model, using my own life experiences to seek out those who are struggling in the sciences, and encourage their educational and professional growth. It is because of role models like that ones I have had, that I not only persevered in STEM, but even considered it as a viable career option. With STEM career opportunities on the rise, now more than ever, women should consider this sector for employment. Best of all, I still have many outlets in STEM where I get to be creative; whether it be through depicting complex molecular interactions in figures or through scientific writing and presentations.

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I wanted to tell an honest story of how I came into STEM, as it was not something I dreamt about as a little girl. However, I hope that as society progresses, this career path will begin to seem not just a viable option for women, but a fulfilling one. All of the role models I have not only enjoy the financial and intellectual rewards of a life in STEM, but also have a family, enjoy hobbies and travel, volunteer, and so much more! These role models enjoy a life of science and the pleasure of having what so many women fear is unobtainable: a work-life balance.

As a military spouse, I understand the uncertainty of deployments and relocations can make pursuing a college degree difficult. My husband, Staff Sergeant Cody Nunez, is a Load Master in the USAF, and endures frequent deployments throughout the year. However, even during his absence he remains my strongest supporter and source of empowerment to complete my degree. Furthermore, I have found that there are many solutions and resources that can be utilized to make pursuing a STEM degree a reality.

If it’s a financial crisis, there are numerous military scholarships, government grants, and even government administered student loans that don’t accrue interest until after you graduate from college. If your college limitations are due to family obligations, remember that there is no set way to attend school, and you have the option to go to school part time, online, and take advantage of the many colleges that are now offering child care services with reduced rates.

Finally, if your reasons for straying away from STEM are that you fear you do not have the chops to do it, I am here to say that yes you can! All of the skills you have developed are translatable to STEM vocations, and there are many opportunities for STEM careers in government, industry and academia. With the wealth of information available at our fingertips thanks to technology, you can take advantage of online tutoring, professors who provide lecture notes and podcasts electronically, and the ability to use video conference platforms to contribute to group projects and discussions.

If there was ever a time for women to make their breakthrough into the sciences it is now, and I truly believe that if this once C-average high school student, now turned PhD grad in Chemistry can excel in STEM, then you can too!

Posted by Nicole Nunez, Military Spouse

What does a lobster, a job and MyCAA have in common?

I came upon a career in the legal field by accident. We had returned from an overseas PCS, the house was empty awaiting arrival of our household goods, and I was living 8 hours away in the meantime. In celebration of our third wedding anniversary, I drove to meet my husband for dinner at Red Lobster (a HUGE splurge on our meager family budget). Our waitress asked what we were celebrating, and after a little conversation and learning we were new to the area, she asked what type of job I was looking for. She mentioned this was her second job, and she was a legal secretary at a Little Rock law firm. They had a legal secretary position open.

I sent my resume in right away and was hired the next weekend. Little did I know, a career was born. I continued to seek legal secretary positions over the next decade, albeit in different parts of the country every three or four years due to PCS moves.

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When we received orders to Goodfellow AFB, in San Angelo, Texas, the job search was slim pickings in the legal field. After three months of fruitless searching and taking an administrative assistant position, I landed the only legal secretary position advertised. The job was not busy, or as fulfilling, compared to other positions I had held, however staying within my chosen field was really important to me.

I searched for additional things to keep my mind busy, especially since my husband had just deployed. After I finished all of the filing and shredding, I took two online refresher courses, neither that provided school credits. But I knew I wanted to keep learning. A portable career was, and still is, a top priority for me, so I chose to pursue my Associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies.

I was not prepared for the cost of education, but found an online school I felt our family might be able to afford, and I applied. After acceptance, my school counselor mentioned all of the possible grants and tucked neatly within them was My Career Advancement Account, or better known by many as MyCAA.

I wasn’t sure whether online school would be covered, as it looked like most spouses were using their monies for certificate programs. So I first needed to confirm that my chosen school and degree program met their covered criteria. Lucky for me, it was covered!

Although it seems silly now, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could go to class or if I would be up for the homework. At that point, the thought of going to college for the first time when I was 32 years old was quite scary. I had two children in high school and one in elementary – what would that be like? Could I really do this?

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Knowing that the MyCAA investment was available gave me the encouragement I needed to take the leap into my education. The process of approval for payments was seamless. I only needed to ensure I gave myself, and MyCAA, enough time to approve and process the upcoming class for payment.

You might ask yourself whether going back to school is worth it. Do we really learn anything by getting a degree? Does it help you in your career? My answer to all three is a resounding YES! My career and family has been changed for the better. My degree has made it easier to find a position and transition to a new job with a corresponding salary range over each PCS move. None of which would have happened without the help of MyCAA.

I am so grateful to MyCAA for supporting military spouses all across the globe.  For me and our little family, a seemingly small contribution from MyCAA put a fire into me and gave me the motivation I needed. It went way beyond the monetary value. Knowing somewhere, someone believed in me was enough to kick start my education.

If you meet the eligibility requirements, I would highly recommend looking into MyCAA-approved programs. A 6-week course could change the trajectory of your professional future. It is truly possible to have a career, be a supportive military spouse, mother, and full-time student. You only must begin, take the first step, have faith in yourself and you, fellow spouses, will FLY!

Have you used the MyCAA scholarship program to go back to school? What was your experience?

Posted by April May Hackleton, Military spouse

The Post-9/11 GI Bill: What Can Spouses Actually Use?

I know, I know. Shouldn’t you save the Post-9/11 GI bill for your kids? Or your spouse? I can’t help you get over the guilt of using your service member’s Post-9/11 GI bill (that’s a private convo for you two to have), but I can tell you how the benefit works if you decided to use it.

There is a lot of confusion about what the benefit provides if a service member is using it, or a veteran, or a spouse, or a child. Remember, the rules vary depending on two factors: (1) who is receiving the benefit and (2) the service member’s active duty status when the benefit is being used (i.e. is your service member on active duty or a veteran?).

How Does it Work?

For a spouse to use a transferred benefit a service member must:

  • Have 6 years of service and agree to serve 4 more;
  • Complete a “Transfer of Education” benefit form; and
  • Be on active duty. (There are no exceptions to this rule.)

The benefits a spouse will receive when using a transferred benefit will depend on whether the spouse uses the benefit while a service member is on active duty or in veteran status.

Spouse beneftis table

A spouse can access the benefit while the service member is on active duty for up to 15 years after service member leaves service. Tuition and fees are covered at the in-state tuition rate at public schools, or a maximum cap at private schools. The private school maximum cap is adjusted annual and as of August 1, 2016 is $21,970.46. A spouse is also eligible to receive a $1,000 book stipend prorated based on enrollment. Keep in mind – if you do not attend full time, you won’t receive the entire $1,000 book stipend.

A new law to be aware of is the Choice Act. Under the Choice Act, public schools may only charge in-state tuition and fees (not the out-of-state rate) to a veteran spouse using the benefit within 3 years of service member leaving active duty. While the Choice Act does not apply to active duty spouses, a spouse of an active duty service member can receive in-state tuition where the service member resides or is permanently stationed, regardless of whether they are using the GI bill.

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The housing allowance is for a veteran spouse only. You can’t access this stipend when the service member is on active duty because the service member already receives a basic allowance for housing. The housing rate is paid at an E-5 with dependents rate for your school’s zip code. To receive the full rate, you must attend more than 50% of the time, and in-person. If you attend online the housing allowance is a flat rate of about $800 per month for the 2016 academic year.

The Yellow Ribbon Program is only open to veteran spouses and is used by select private schools. Schools that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program agree to pay additional funds to help buy-down the cost of tuition at private schools. This means a student receiving Yellow Ribbon funds, would receive funding beyond the annual private school cap. There are several nuances with the Yellow Ribbon Program. Ask early and ask often – there may only be a limited number of Yellow Ribbon spots. Spots vary by school and degree program. For example, a school may only have 5 graduate student spots, but an unlimited number of undergrad Yellow Ribbon seats.

Are you a military spouse or veteran spouse using the Post-9/11 GI Bill? What other tips would you share with families?

katiePosted by Katie Savant, Government Relations Issue Strategist

Why Military Spouses Should Consider a STEM Profession

STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics

I am a chemical engineer and my heart belongs to my husband, who is serving our country as an active duty Airman. Yes, I just included both of those huge, seemingly conflicting, pieces of my life in a single sentence; being a career-minded STEM professional and a military spouse, simultaneously, is possible and can be absolutely amazing and fulfilling!

What Makes STEM So Great?

If you are looking for a career with the perfect Trifecta—in demand, financially sound and portable—a STEM career may fit the bill!

Most people don’t go into STEM solely for the money. Although the money is far from shabby…

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the May 2013 annual average wage for all the STEM occupations was $79,640, roughly 1.7 times the national annual average wage for all occupations ($46,440).

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The decision to go STEM usually starts when we act on that little fire inside: a burning desire to solve problems; a craving for knowledge; an interest in finding a better way; a yearning to make our world a better place. STEM is a calling. If you have even a little spark inside of you for STEM, I encourage you to consider the following:

Jobs are out there! According to 2014 reports from the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, STEM jobs accounted for 5-10% of all jobs across our nation. The top three states with the highest distribution of STEM jobs were Maryland 7.7%, Virginia 7.5%, Washington 7.4%.

There will be even more out there soon! STEM jobs are projected to grow by one million between 2012 and 2022. Baby boomers are retiring in droves and a talent gap is growing. Just in Washington state alone, 50,000 jobs will go unfilled by 2017 because there aren’t enough skilled workers.

The STEM field is growing! You can get started on your STEM education right now! Scholarships are available for military spouses. Overall, STEM occupations are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations yet, of the recent NMFA scholarship applicants, only 5.8% were seeking STEM degrees. Military spouses are missing out on these fulfilling and rewarding careers!

What About the Downsides?

Let’s be real—there are challenges and there are many opportunities to improve the career horizon for military spouses in STEM. Here are a couple to consider:

Portability is questionable. There are many opportunities where remote work arrangements are possible. I know a few spouses who successfully negotiated this arrangement with their employer upon a move. Not every employer is willing, and not every job is capable of being remote. If seeking new employment after a move, many STEM industries vary by region as well so the likelihood of finding a similar job in a new area is hit or miss. The sunny side of this is that big-name STEM employers are starting to recognize military spouses as a high-value talent pool and are starting to develop solutions to attract, retain, and support the development and transition of military spouses in STEM professions.

Education is challenging. If you are worried that the education piece may be too difficult or too demanding, a little bit of love and geeky excitement is enough to give you the endurance and the resiliency needed for the rigors of a STEM education.

Work of love. I must caution you though, STEM can be rather addicting. When you discover the awesomeness of it, you may feel the calling to apply your passion and skills to every opportunity and you may feel a strong sense of loss and frustration if you run into challenges pursuing your career goals.

A Special Consideration for Military Spouses

Upwards of 95% of military spouses are female, and females are significantly underrepresented in STEM. This is important because our world needs better diversity representation in STEM professions because diversity leads to diverse thinking which leads to innovation. Regardless of your gender, your experience as a military spouse, and the breadth of your professional experiences, is extremely valuable in STEM. Beyond technical skills, the top-rated skills are thinking and communication—we are talking about some of the super strengths of military spouses right there!

What’s Next?

You decide! This is your career. Do the pros outweigh the cons? If you decide a STEM career is right for you…

We invite you to join the Society of Military Spouses in STEM (SMSS), where you will connect with an extremely passionate and supportive group of people determined to overcome the challenges of maintaining a career with the military lifestyle and to support fellow active and retired military spouses in STEM fields reach their full potential.

Society of Military Spouses in STEM (SMSS) is a member-driven 501(c)(3) organization. For more information, visit www.smsstem.org

Are you a military spouse in the STEM field? What do you love about it?

Posted by Michelle Aikman, military spouse and NMFA Scholarship Recipient

Turning Pages When Turning Corners: Using Books to Start Conversations With Kids

I can’t stand the smell of cardboard boxes. Or saying goodbye to friends. Or living out of a suitcase. However, moving is an inevitable part of military life, and preparing my kids for our move later on this year is coming up on my mom-radar. When facing several pivotal childhood moments, like potty training, making friends, and starting elementary school, my husband and I enlist the help of children’s books to help us begin conversations. As we prepare to turn another corner and encounter our next relocation, these are the children’s books that we’re reading at my house:

Little girl reading

Boomer’s Big Day by Constance W. McGeorge

My son loves this book about Boomer and his big move to a new house, as told through a the eyes of a dog. One day Boomer suddenly realizes all of his favorite toys are packed up in boxes. He’s not quite sure what to think of the boxes and movers. When he arrives to the new home, he learns that lots of new friends are waiting to meet him!

The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Who doesn’t love the classic Berenstain Bear family? Brother and Sister are moving to a new house, and don’t know quite what to expect. The Berenstain family says goodbye to old friends, watches the movers load their household goods, and then finds new, exciting experiences waiting for them at their new home.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

Chester’s nervous about starting school, and his mama, Mrs. Raccoon, shares the perfect remedy to assuage his fears. Together, they find a routine that helps both raccoons cope as Chester starts attending a new school. Hands-down, this is my favorite new school book! I think The Kissing Hand is perfect for talking about first day jitters.

My Very Exciting, Sorta Scary Move by Lori Attanasio Woodring

The title was the first thing that drew me to order this book. Written by a licensed psychologist, the ideas in this collection of activities are carefully developed with knowledge of how to help small minds through transitions. This book provides several parent-child conversation starters and the pages are filled with activities to help children and parents understand change and emotions.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney

Though Guess How Much I Love You does not necessarily relate to moving, it’s a sweet book that I find myself reading to my kiddos regularly, especially during times of transition. Its reassuring message offers parents an opportunity to start meaningful, reassuring conversations with their children.

Though PCSing is difficult, but moving to a new community brings new beginnings, new friends, and new opportunities. Best wishes for your next PCS!

Do you use books to help your child through milestones or transitions? Which ones would you recommend?

teresa-bannerPosted by Teresa Banner, National Military Family Association Volunteer

Diverse Scholars Initiative Forum: A Diverse Meeting of the Minds

I had the privilege of attending the 2016 United Health Diverse Scholars Initiative Forum a few weeks ago. I was in a room with 100 of the best and the brightest upcoming health professionals in the country. The whole forum buzzed with passion and innovative ideas. The multi-cultural event had attendees representing nine different non-profit or civic organizations focused on minority groups. Everyone in attendance was working or hoped to work in the healthcare field. The wide variety of backgrounds, cultural representation, and world experiences led to amazingly critical and thoughtful discussions. The whole experience was a truly collaborative meeting of the minds.

So, what was I doing there?

I am a white female and acknowledge the privilege that has inherently come with that. I consider myself middle-class from a middle-class background. However, this year the Diverse Scholars Initiative Forum included a new group of attendees: military spouses. In this capacity I am a minority, an anomaly even. Only a small group of Americans hold the distinct honor, and bare the hardships of being a military spouse.

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The National Military Family Association (NMFA) awarded me a scholarship to assist with the financial burden of continuing education and the clinical supervision required for my profession as a clinical social worker. It was because of NMFA’s support for military spouses that I had the pleasure of attending the United Health Diverse Scholars Initiative Forum.

Throughout the Forum there was a strong focus on professional networking, branding, and advocacy. We heard from experienced members of the healthcare industry, participated in interactive panel discussions with experts, and had the opportunity to converse with members of congress on Capitol Hill. The chance to ask Congressmen and Senators questions about healthcare policy, in an open environment, was an invaluable experience.

During every aspect of the Forum we were engaged in meaningful conversations about the future of our country’s health. The important issues that healthcare professionals face were entrenched in everything. From policy to ethics, to standards of care; we tried to consider the “big stuff.” Being surrounded by such a diverse and brilliant crowd was nothing short of inspirational.

I left this year’s Diverse Scholars Initiative Forum feeling like I had taken a deep breath of fresh air. It left me feeling like a change is not only possible, but necessary. I am more sure than ever that this generation’s critical minds are up for the challenge.

Posted by Katie J. Haynes, MSW, LCSWA, military spouse and NMFA Scholarship Recipient 

Passing the Post-9/11 GI Bill to a Military Spouse: Yes or No?

For me, making the decision to use my husband’s Post-9/11 GI Bill, rather than save it for our kids, or for my husband when he gets out of the military, was difficult. The decision wasn’t hard for my husband, though. He has told me time and again that he wants me to use it. But it’s been difficult for me.

I am not the one who raised her right hand, and swore an oath to our nation. I am not the one who works countless hours, and follows every order, even when that order means missing out on holidays and graduations and plans with the family. I am not the one who deployed, or is ready and waiting for the next time someone needs to put their life on the line for Uncle Sam.

Not me.

I’m just the spouse. I am his cheerleader. I am proud to support him and do what I need to do to keep our home happy and healthy so he can do his job. I am doing everything I can to pitch in for our family, and that includes working, and hustling, and yes, going back to college.

My degree program is expensive. Very expensive. And climbing a career ladder as a military spouse isn’t easy.

Sometimes I wonder if spending this benefit on me is a worthwhile investment. I am not sure we’ll be in this area long enough for me to finish this degree program, let alone use it to it’s fullest potential. I am not sure I am going to be able to reach MY fullest potential as long as my spouse is active duty.

I’ve been struggling with this icky, dirty, rotten feeling, and wondering if my family made the right decision to invest in me, and this degree, right now.

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I shared these concerns with a friend, and fellow military spouse, who reassured me that I am not alone. She reminded me that degrees do not have expiration dates; if now is the right time for me to be working towards a degree, then I should do it. Even if we have a PCS looming, or I am unsure of what the future holds. I can get that degree, and hang it on my wall, and stick it on my resume, and it will be there for me when I need it.

She reminded me that struggling with guilt is normal, especially for a woman who is also a mom, like me. We are used to giving our kids the last scoop of ice cream and putting our needs to the side to care for them. So using a benefit for myself that could be passed to them is tough for me.

But, I can still use my degree to help them. Getting this degree will raise my earning potential, and impact my family’s budget. By the time my kids are ready to go to college, I could be earning much more money, and have an easier time helping pay their tuition. Before they are ready to go to college, our family will have more money to invest in sports and activities and tutors, so my kids will be more competitive when it comes to earning a college scholarship.

I need to remember that my husband and I are a team. We are in this together, and he believes I am a worthwhile investment. I need to believe in myself, as well. The Post-9/11 GI Bill has the potential to make a real difference for my family NOW. He is a “lifer,” and won’t be out of the military for another 10-15 years (knock on wood). By then, he won’t need the benefit. But I need it now, and our family needs my employment income now.

Lastly, my friend reminded me that many military spouses are struggling with employment issues. Many have put themselves, their educations, and their careers on the back burner. They’ve given up…and I don’t blame them at all. It’s hard to be ready and willing to work, and have the education and experience you need, and STILL hit a brick wall. Getting this degree will help me become more employable. It will make me more competitive. I may still struggle to find a job, and military life may still present it’s own challenges, but it’s always better to make sure there are multiple doors (and windows!) open to me. This degree will unlock them all.

I have an opportunity that has been lovingly given to me by my husband. He earned the right to choose where that benefit was best spent. He has chosen to invest in my education, and our family’s future. The best thing I can do for all of us is to continue to work my tail off, keep my head up, and know I am doing my part to help my family in the long run.

Are you a military spouse using the Post-9/11 GI Bill? How did you decide it was right for your family?

HeatherPosted by Heather Aliano, Social Media Manager