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How the military saved my college career

2nd Lt. Sam Norville posing with her college diploma after graduating.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Sam Norville, then a technical sergeant air transportation specialist with the 182nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, is pictured with her college diploma after graduating from University of Illinois at Springfield in Springfield, Ill., May 14, 2016. She said that joining the military changed her into a focused and motivated student. (U.S. Air National Guard courtesy photo)

2nd Lt. Sam Norville posing with her husband and child.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Sam Norville, a force support officer with the 182nd Airlift Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, poses for a photo with her spouse and child after graduating from Total Force Officer Training in Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., March 10, 2017. She served as an enlisted air transportation specialist before the military funded her bachelor’s degree through the Illinois National Guard Grant, leading her to commissioning. (U.S. Air National Guard courtesy photo)

PEORIA, Ill. -- I always talked about joining the Air National Guard in high school, but education was so engrained in me growing up that I didn’t think twice about college when the time came. I packed up, headed for the University of Illinois at Springfield and quickly learned that it was going to be very difficult to pay for my own schooling without an income if I didn’t want to go into serious student loan debt.

I got a job as a hostess and picked up a second job working in retail, but eventually the opportunity to make money took precedence and I started skipping classes to pick up shifts. My grades started to slip, and I realized I was never going to make it through college at the rate I was going. Knowing a little bit about the military’s education benefits, I started to explore the option and a couple weeks after my freshman year, I enlisted at the Illinois Air National Guard as an aerial porter.

I graduated basic training in October 2005 and by January was back at the University of Illinois. I picked up right where I left off, but I was a completely different person. I was focused and motivated.

I didn’t have to worry about the financial stress anymore because the Illinois Guard Grant was paying for my tuition and the Montgomery GI Bill, kicker, drill checks and money I had saved from training were paying for my books, rent and necessities. I went from struggling to get B’s and C’s in no identified major to getting straight A’s as a double major. Not only was I doing great in school, but I loved my part-time job in the aerial port, too.

I was at the base every chance I got, and I didn’t hesitate to volunteer when a deployment came up in 2009. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and psychology just two weeks after I arrived in Iraq.

I was only supposed to be there for 120 days, but I was fresh out of school without a job, so I added another 120 days to my tour when the opportunity to extend came around. I didn’t realize how much that decision would benefit me at the time, both personally and professionally.

I spent a month applying for jobs and attending interviews after I left Iraq in January 2010, but it seemed like all the jobs — and salary — I really wanted required a master’s degree. It just so happened that with my newly earned veteran status also came more education benefits. With the Illinois Veteran’s Grant and Post 9/11 GI Bill, I essentially got paid to receive a higher level education.

I began the Human Development Counseling master’s program at University of Illinois at Springfield in the spring of 2011. While I was waiting for the semester to begin, I was able to work on military orders and as a temporary technician at the base. I had plans of moving to Springfield and going to school fulltime, but a fulltime technician position came open in the aerial port after I started my first semester.

After a lot of thought, I decided to apply for it, just to see what happened. I loved my job, and it just felt like something I couldn’t pass up. I was offered the position and by September 2011 was a fulltime employee and a fulltime graduate student with a 45 minute drive to work and a two hour drive to school. I didn’t realize what I had gotten myself into, but I had a goal and I wasn’t about to turn back.

It took me 5.5 years, a whole lot of driving and countless nights sleeping on my office floor to get my master’s degree. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was worth it!

A fulltime officer position for the 182nd Sexual Assault Response Coordinator was released right before graduation. It was perfect, and I felt like everything was falling into place. Not only was the job right up my alley in the counseling field, but commissioning had been one of my goals since I had joined. I was offered the job in May, just a week before graduation and one month after the birth of my first child. By January I was off to Total Force Officer Training and was commissioned March 10, 2017.

The road to where I am today has not been an easy one, but I wouldn’t change any part of my journey, because it got me here.

Thanks to the ANG, I have been able to experience deployment, college and both the enlisted and officer sides of the military. I have traveled the world throughout my 12 years of service, gained a lot of experience and friendships and obtained two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree without a penny of student loan debt.

I am grateful for all of the support from my friends, family and coworkers and am excited to see what the remainder of my career looks like from here. So, although it may sound backwards, it was the military that saved my college career.