Veteran Sharon Kunkel is currently enrolled in a graduate program on the West Coast, intent on achieving her teaching certification in the field of science.
For the separated E-4 Third-class Petty Officer, it’s the final stop on an educational journey that began years prior, when the Conroe, Texas native set off for Baylor University following high school, before transferring to the University of Texas at Tyler to play softball. She was excited for the future but unsure on a career path.
Growing frustrated of changing degree plans, Kunkel began to seek purpose, a higher calling. One day she stopped by a U.S. Navy recruitment office that she passed regularly on her commute home.
It was a decision Kunkel would never regret, providing not only a new direction in life, but one that would eventually led her back to school and a degree. And as a member of the National Association for Uniformed Services (NAUS), she was able to earn a bachelor’s degree at a reduced cost due to an educational agreement between Excelsior College and the organization.
Excelsior Life recently sat down with Ms. Kunkel to discuss her education, career, and thoughts on the future.
Excelsior Life: You were a bit uncertain about your career path and stopped by a military recruitment office one day. Can you describe what happened next?
Kunkel: I decided to just stop by and see what kind of job I could get if I enlisted and completed a practice ASVAB* test. (She qualified to be in the Navy nuclear power field, which requires a high ASVAB score.) Initially intimidated (on the prospect of a career in nuclear), I went to speak to other offices.
Eventually, I decided to try the program, knowing the rigor and time-in-training that it entailed. After completing boot camp (which I was obviously nervous about attending), I moved on to my training. I was supported the entire way with all the materials and help to achieve success in this challenging program.
In a way I learned that I could learn anything! Having no experience in the nuclear field or many of the sciences that it included (thermodynamics, atomic and nuclear physics, chemistry, materials, mechanics, etc.), I excelled better than I dreamed possible, graduating with distinction and honors.
Excelsior Life: When did you decide to go back to school? Why did you want to secure a degree?
Kunkel: I immediately decided to go back to school, knowing that I was close to completing a degree. I wanted to take advantage of my GI Bill and eventually become a teacher.
I first heard about Excelsior while I was enlisted. I knew that there were programs that I could complete that accepted my credits I earned while enlisted, and I knew that the schedule was flexible enough to allow completion even while still enlisted.
I discovered NAUS after speaking with Judy Reed (director of Veteran Services and Outreach at Excelsior College). She informed me of the organization and suggested I look into it. I then joined NAUS, accepting a tuition discount and became a member of an organization that supported veterans and current military personnel. I received newsletters and information about the programs’ mission and important changes that were taking place in our government that would affect me and my family and other military personnel.
Excelsior Life: What degree did you choose and why?
Kunkel: I chose a Bachelors of Science degree in Liberal Arts . This degree fit because it allowed me to receive credit for my previous classes and opened the door to pursue a graduate degree. It had a more open degree plan that allowed me to schedule classes to fit my individual needs.
Excelsior Life: Did you face any academic challenges along the way? How did you overcome these challenges?
Kunkel: The challenges that came up through my completion were easier to face because of my training in the military. I feel as though a transformation occurred in my life when I realized that with the proper amount of effort I can learn anything. This experience gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a higher education and apply to begin my masters degree.
Excelsior Life: Did your military experience help prepare you to manage your time studying and finishing coursework?
Kunkel: Absolutely! There was no time in my training that I was allowed to leave something incomplete. There is no quitting so that academic endurance became ingrained in me and is now a part of who I am.
Excelsior Life: Time management and finding time for school and the work it requires is often challenging for military and veteran students. How did you handle those pressure and deadlines?
Kunkel: Being in the nuclear program itself places a tremendous amount of pressure on one individual and know that I would be a reactor operator was probably the most intimidating realization I had. That being said, I was in a way being trained to deal with situations that created pressure. I feel like it was easier for me to deal with the academic pressure and deadlines because of my prior experiences.
Excelsior Life: Did you have a support system?
Kunkel: Yes. My husband who is still in the Navy as a nuclear electrician was my greatest support. He always encouraged me to finish my degree. I was also pregnant while completing the program and I felt that securing my education would provide an inspiring example for my child. My parents were also a great support because they have always backed my decisions no matter what they were. I always knew if I was struggling and my husband was away I could call my mom or dad for motivation.
Excelsior Life: What advice can you offer servicemembers and veterans who are deciding on colleges and careers?
Kunkel: Take advantage of your life experiences. There are negatives all over the world, no matter what decisions you choose, but if you take advantages of the positive and keep your head up you never know what you can accomplish!
Excelsior Life: Any final thoughts or other issues you’d like to emphasize regarding your education or Excelsior College?
Kunkel: As humans, we never stop learning and I was privileged to have the opportunity to pursue a formal education with Excelsior College.
*Editor’s Note: ASVAB i[j2] s a multiple-apititude battery that measures developed abilities and helps predict future academic and occupational success in the military.