Air Force facilitates passionate pursuit of learning

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Heather Heiney
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
The faint smell of sawdust from a pencil being sharpened, the kiss of air from flipping the pages of new book and the hum of my teacher's voice as she explained the world all contributed to my passion for learning.

My insatiable curiosity and desire to learn significantly influenced my decision to join the Air Force. I knew before I raised my right hand that this would be the greatest opportunity in my life ─ a way to discover something new every day. I knew I'd have the chance to learn how to be a good Airman in basic training, learn my career in tech school and at my first duty station, learn about different people and different cultures not only on deployment but within my own country and continue my formal education after duty hours.

In today's Air Force, deciding to forgo a higher level of education is no longer an option. At a minimum, a Community College of the Air Force degree is required to advance into the senior noncommissioned officer ranks.

If planned carefully, that requirement can be easily completed in conjunction with at least a bachelor's degree within one enlistment. This is because in most cases it's possible to use the same credits for multiple degrees. For example, I completed my associate's degree at a civilian community college before I joined the Air Force and I've been able to apply those classes to both my CCAF degree and my bachelor's degree.

The best part is that all it costs is time because the Air Force allows each of its members $4,500 a year of tuition assistance in addition to their G.I. Bill benefits. This is free money and you can use it at nearly any accredited educational institution to learn about almost anything that interests you.

Now, because of my duty requirements, I've relinquished my notebooks, pens and classroom atmosphere for discussion boards, e-books and the glow of a computer screen. While it's definitely a different experience, I'm still moving towards my educational goals and feeding my sense of wonder.

Some advice that I have for active-duty members who want to pursue their education is -

Go to the education office. The staff is there to help you with every step of the tuition assistance process and answer any questions you may have about schools in the local area, G.I. bill benefits, testing for college credit, how to earn a CCAF degree and much more.

Use every penny of your tuition assistance. It's free money, and if you don't use it, you may as well set fire to $4,500 dollars every year.

Make sure the school you wish to attend is accredited and that you get a degree plan for the major you want to pursue. Both are required for tuition assistance approval, so drop by the education office and ask them to check the institution's accreditation.

Look for a school that is "military friendly." Many schools will actually cover the cost of books, fees and even tuition if it exceeds the $750 per course tuition assistance limit.

Don't take on more than you can handle. Being in the military and attending college each have a tendency to increase stress on their own, so be realistic about how many classes you can take at a time without burning out.

Make time for the things that are important to you. College is time consuming. Use effective time management skills so you can still spend time with friends and family and take time for yourself.

Don't get discouraged. If you become overwhelmed, take a step back and evaluate your options. Most schools offer help for those struggling with classes; and don't forget the wingman concept.

No matter how you obtain it, an education is one of the most important things you can take away from your Air Force career because it will set you up for success even after you turn in your combat boots.

For more information, visit your base education office.