When last we left our dashing young hero, he had seen his dreams of higher education deferred if not shattered, and he was working at a job with no future. What's a young, healthy, ambitious, reckless man to do?
Well, for about a year, nothing. Then I called my local recruiter. I wanted to join the Marines, do a tour in the infantry, and go on with my life. Naturally, that didn't work out, either. Flat feet. Really. So I tried the Navy. They didn't care about my lack of arches, so off I went, just before my nineteenth birthday. After some rather intensive training, I went off to the submarine fleet.
And here's the thing—that was probably the best decision I could have made. I got to travel around the world, meet people from all over, and experience things I never could have afforded otherwise. I learned how to operate nuclear reactors, fix all kinds of mechanical equipment, fight fires, shoot weapons, and generally cram a whole lot of experience into six years. Did it suck sometimes? Oh, you better believe it did. It was often exhausting work with insanely grueling hours and ridiculous demands on my mental and physical stamina. So it's safe to say that there were periods—sometimes long periods—of intense suckery. But, importantly, I knew that any suckage was temporary; it was a sucky means to a better end. The suckiness of my prior experience was infinitely compounded by there not being a clear path out of it. It's surprising how much you can put up with provided you can see an end to it all.
Of course, as most American Sparklers will be aware, the military also offered me the GI Bill when I got out. (Those of you from other countries or Americans who are unaware of that program, here's a summary: It's a wildly successful government welfare program that educates honorably-discharged service members.) I used that, combined with other scholarships and grants and jobs, to go to a good public undergraduate institution. After that, I applied to and got funding for one of the top graduate schools in my field. When I was all done with school, here's what I owed in any kind of loans:
That's right. I finished a decade of education without one thin dime of debt. And I'm certain that I did better in university than I would have had I entered as a talented yet precocious 17-year-old. I knew how good I had it by the time I actually started college, and I was damn sure going to make the most of my time there.
I'm not saying that the military is the best thing for a person to do, or that it's a good option for everyone—Lord knows I had plenty of difficult times due, among other things, to my deep-seated problem with authority. But the point is this: It worked for me. It was a way out of a terrible situation that had no other positive exits. And it put paid to the notion that you're doomed if you don't immediately start on a university path upon completion of high school.
My story is just one of tens of thousands. There are plenty of other routes to education that don't require you to mortgage your entire future or sell vital organs—community college, Americorps, and others. Also, and importantly, college isn't for everyone. There are apprenticeships, trade schools, and other avenues to secure gainful and stable employment as an adult. Consider all your options, not just the one that everyone assumes you have to take.
And now this little series comes to an end. Thanks for reading, and I hope this has been illuminating.
Would you ever consider joining the military?