My 7 year Itch: Education, Professional Development, and Self Discovery

Young & Inexperienced

I started college in the fall of 2011 and like most eighteen year olds I knew everything. I knew what I wanted to major in, where I wanted to go, and how I was going to do it. I think any person reading this who’s had this conversation with a know-it-all young adult can relate. I can say confidently now, that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I started off wanting to be a medical doctor. I very quickly pushed the E brake on that plan and turned to a physical therapy exercise science degree route. After multiple courses and 500 hours of observation in various clinics, hospitals, and the VA I knew in my gut that this wasn’t for me. So, like any logical college student… I stuck with it. The blinders were up and I went full speed…I continued to convince myself and everyone around me that this is what I wanted and it was too late to turn back.

A Stubborn Overachiever

At this point I was double majoring in Organizational Supervision to maximize my Ohio Army National Guard Scholarship and minoring in psychology due to my level of uncertainty. I was applying to numerous scholarships and consulting my “life binder” loaded with contingency plans to make sense of it all. At any given time I was juggling three jobs. Two in higher education working with veterans and as a civilian-soldier. I was volunteering my time extensively and holding leadership positions in veteran organizations. I was also trying to rise in ranks to become a non-commissioned officer which I was able to do in three and half years. I was winning awards, thousands of dollars in scholarships, and making a name for myself on and off campus within the community. I managed to be financially independent and live on my own over the course of three residencies during this seven year span while I continued to take 15-18 credit hours all year round to finish up my degrees.

Unfortunately, I was in absolute denial. I didn’t feel challenged or interested in my school work and it was too expensive to not follow through. I felt trapped in a web of self commitment and never felt like my education gave me the tools to be successful let alone happy. My self exploration was limited by the degree plan laid out by multiple academic counselors that never once asked what made me happy or asked me what I was good at.

You know what happens to shooting stars? They burn out.

I graduated in fall 2016 with my undergraduate degrees. I recall feeling empty as I held that empty sleeve symbolic of my achievements… All those classes, late nights, missed events, missed opportunities, personal and financial sacrifices I made over the years. I didn’t enjoy the journey nor did I feel much different. I remember going to work that following Monday and nothing, I mean nothing had changed. I was still anxious, depressed, and felt like I had missed my exit. I didn’t get into any of the PT schools I applied too. My GRE math was low and I only had a 3.4 gpa. In less than a two hour ceremony and for all sixty seconds, I walked across a stage to feel like a failure. I didn’t feel like I had a purpose. My work suffered, I lost my motivation to some degree to go above and beyond and still caught myself faking the funk more often then I would like to admit. Over the years, I became really good at compartmentalizing and not always in the best ways.

As I faced uncertainty I revisited my “life binder” and found information I had saved a long time ago for a masters in public health program. It was well researched and logged in my binder which to my surprise made me happy to read. It was the first spark I felt in awhile. It was the best of the undergraduate classes in a masters in my opinion. At this point, I had a surplus of scholarships to last me spring and summer if I got accepted. If I didn’t get accepted well I would have to revoke thousands of dollars back to veteran organizations that invested in me and I guess just look for a job. The next thing I did was crazy, I registered for the qualifying Northeast Ohio Medical University MPH electives while in the acceptance window to the program. That’s right, I just went all in… there was no looking back… I had committed my last scholarship dollars to a hail mary play with no guarantee.

I just went all in… there was no looking back…

A Twist in Fate

Mid 2017 spring semester I was provisionally accepted to the program due to my low GRE and would eventually gain full admission. What happened next was even more crazy… I ran into an old supervisor that alluded to a graduate assistantship position potentially in her office. Months went by as the University made huge cuts to these types of positions and sure enough I got a email to interview while I was on bed rest after a line of duty injury at annual training right before my wedding (literally two weeks away). Mid summer 2017, I was 1 of 2 that was offered a graduate assistant position for that office out of over 25 candidates. The position would cover over $12,000 in tuition.

I learned very quickly what I did and didn’t like about public health (biostats and epidemiology… not my cup of tea for starters). I found myself drawing from my military/veteran work experiences throughout college and applying them to all of my coursework and team projects. I wasn’t interested in viruses or emergency preparedness but community quality of life. Research was great but it isn’t always accessible nor at a reading level for the general public and as an educator I finally found my voice. I was an advocator, an innovator, a learner, and a strategist meant to create and execute plans. I wanted nothing more than to create action and awareness, needless to say I stuck out like a sore thumb from my pre-med/medical school counterparts. I was researching programs and community resources leveraging my existing knowledge in the broad spectrums of higher education, employment, and health specific to veteran transition and military families. I loved it. Eureka! My competency and skills finally aligned with my passion and strengths. It only took six and a half years to figure out.

I stuck out like a sore thumb from my pre-med/medical school counterparts.

Things that happen in 3’s

My mom used to tell me things happen in three’s. Well my three’s happened spring of 2018. I was in need of professional experience(s) aside from higher education to build my brand and networking. I wanted to learn and as the the saying goes, ask and you shall receive.

February 28th, 2018, I accepted an in-line promoted to staff sergeant while building a packet to direct commission to the Army Reserves as a Healthcare Administration officer. March 1st, 2018, my husband and I’s offer/bid on our dream home using my VA home loan was accepted. Finally, March 2nd, 2018, I was accepted as 1 in 25 nationally for The Washington Centers VET internship valued at $14,000 dollars to live and work in Washington DC for 10 weeks. Talk about when preparation meets opportunity. My graduate assistantship was wrapping up at the end of May, I was all moved into my new home, and I left my means of employment at the community college and was committed to step out of my comfort zone.

Presence, Poise, & Position

When I got to DC I remember telling myself as I sat in Lafayette Square to just embrace yourself and don’t be apologetic. Observe, strategize, and execute… three simple things. My goal was to build my strengths alongside my networks to leave a lasting impression. I was there to find and expand my knowledge to gain meaningful professional mentorship. I rarely slept for starters. I was meeting people constantly or arranging meetings to gather insight for my master courses I was taking during my internship and for my capstone project in veteran transition. I can honestly say while in DC I was fully present and in the moment. I felt rejuvenated and alive… practically almost unstoppable in my ambitions. Between being told to run for office, start my own business, and considered an expert to a certain degree; I was flattered. It was what I needed and long overdue. In 3 months, I build over a 600 quality networks while in DC and immediately following my return. I built a brand and am working on starting my own consulting business in veteran transition, leadership, and benefit resources. I have secured working projects, interviews with different veteran focused projects, the potential to co-host in media productions, and meetings with partners and mentorship with SCORE to stand up my business. Overall, I was my own biggest advocate. There is much to celebrate… I will graduate debt free with two undergraduate degrees and a masters, will have received over $28,000 in scholarships and a $12,000 graduate assistant scholarship totaling $40,000 give or take. I bought my first home at the age of twenty-four, am married to an amazing husband that supported me through it all, and pursuing my dream of owning my own business with the objective to serve my country, community and fellow veterans. The best thing is that I didn’t find myself… I created myself.

I didn’t find myself… I created myself

Every Legend Needs a Lesson

In any case success is not built overnight nor is the road straight and clear. I spent along time thinking I had missed my exit but in reality I was taking the path that would prepare me for what lay ahead. One contingency plan after another my focus, resilience or grit, and ambition saw me through my toughest days. I encourage those uncertain with their educational pursuits to gain some work experience and take internship opportunities while in your undergraduate studies… or even dare I say take a break and find yourself. Don’t rush in like a nut like I did. Give yourself some time to grow and find balance. Enjoy the process and take a strengthsfinder or personality test. We can be our own greatest enemy and it is damn near impossible to defeat an enemy with an outpost in your head. Practice self-awareness, gratitude, and positive thinking to push yourself out of mediocrity and into greatness. My parents still don’t understand what I am doing nor do my friends to a certain degree but, stick to your course because every legend has a lesson to be learned.

We can be our own greatest enemy and it is damn near impossible to defeat an enemy with an outpost in your head.

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