The annual observance of National Military Appreciation Month each May seeks to spotlight and honor the men and women of America’s armed forces, as well as their families.

The month-long commemoration begins with Loyalty Day and continues through Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Military Spouse Appreciation Day and Armed Forces Day, before culminating with Memorial Day.    

For Tonya Parker, appreciating the military is a way of life.

“I am a daughter, sister, wife, niece and, most importantly, mom of a veteran,” said Parker, the Military and Veterans Affairs Coordinator at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. “Most recently, my nephew joined the Army.”

Her family’s military ties help drive her own work.

“I know the sacrifices our military and their families give for our freedom and I want to assist them in accessing their education benefits to earn a degree,” said Parker, who arrived at Florida Tech in May 2014 and assumed her current role a few months later.

As of September 2014, almost 1.1 million people nationwide were receiving benefits from VA education programs, such as the GI Bill® and Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That’s almost double the number of beneficiaries just five years earlier, an increase driven largely by the full enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Since 2009, the VA has distributed more than $40 billion to veterans and dependents who are pursuing a college degree or other educational qualifications, such as certificates.

Additionally, an estimated 300,000 military servicemembers use Tuition Assistance (TA) funds each year to pay for degree and certificate courses, including campus-based and online programs, according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

In April 2015, the DoD unveiled Tuition Assistance DECIDE, an online tool that helps TA recipients get relevant information from about 2,600 educational institutions, including Florida Tech.

“The benefit of using this particular tool is that you know that the schools that are in there are trustworthy, because we vetted them,” Dawn Bilodeau, the department’s chief of voluntary education, said in a DoD news article. “They’ve signed an agreement with the Department of Defense that they’re going to adhere to certain principles of excellence.”

New federal data highlights the potential benefits of a college education. In 2014, the unemployment rate for veterans with at least a bachelor’s degree was 3.8%, while those with just a high school diploma had a jobless rate of 6%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March 2015.

Florida Tech, which has been designated as “military-friendly” by G.I. Jobs and as a top school by Military Advanced Education, offers a variety of benefits to servicemembers, veterans and military families.

“We are available to assist with school registrations and book purchases, as well as assisting with Tuition Assistance (TA) reimbursements or certifying students’ classes so the tuition can be paid by the VA,” Parker said.

“Depending on the VA benefit, tuition could be covered at 100%,” she said.

The university has a long history of serving military students. Its Extended Studies Department was founded in the early 1970s at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland and now offers graduate-level programs at military locations in six states, including Fort Lee, Virginia, and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Florida Tech alumni include dozens of generals, among them Retired Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general in the nation’s history.

Parker encourages veterans and servicemembers to conduct research when choosing a school and degree program.

“Call professionals working in the field and let them know you are interested in getting a degree, and ask questions that can assist you in selecting the right degree,” she said.

Parker spoke with us recently about the challenges students face in balancing military duties and coursework, and the importance of developing a support system.

Q. Tell us about your background and how you came to Florida Tech.

I have worked in higher education for over 20 years, working in financial aid, student affairs and college administration. Recently, I relocated to the Melbourne area to be closer to my husband’s employer and found the job at Florida Tech. I first started at Florida Tech as a Program Coordinator and when the Military and VA Coordinator position became available I applied.

I am a daughter, sister, wife, niece and, most importantly, mom of a veteran. Most recently, my nephew joined the Army. I know the sacrifices our military and their families give for our freedom and I want to assist them in accessing their education benefits to earn a degree.

Q. What are some of the common challenges faced by military students?

Many military students face the challenge of balancing their duties as a servicemember while staying active with family responsibilities and their academic studies. Sometimes the student will be deployed, so the student will have to work with their professor to make sure the work is turned in on time while away from home.

Q. Why should military personnel and veterans consider a degree or certificate program offered 100% online?

An online degree offers veterans and active-duty military personnel the flexibility to earn college credit no matter where they are located in the world. Either at home, on the base or deployed overseas, they can complete their courses.

Q. What advice would you give to military servicemembers and veterans who are considering enrolling in an online degree program?

Do your research. Find out what is the best degree for the field you want to work in. Call professionals working in the field and let them know you are interested in getting a degree, and ask questions that can assist you in selecting the right degree.

Q. What skills developed during military service can help students enjoy a successful educational journey?

I believe the greatest skills military servicemembers and veterans learn are following directions and follow-through. In online learning you have to comprehend what the instructions are and complete your assignments on time.

Q. Which factors are important in smoothing the transition from military duty to civilian life?

I feel the best way a servicemember can transition back to civilian life is to become involved with their community. Volunteer at your child’s school, at church or with an organization that gives back to the community. This will help the servicemember build relationships outside of the military.

Q. What steps can military students take in order to balance college coursework with military duties, professional responsibilities and family life?

Students need to build a support system that will help them while in school. This could be lining up babysitters so you can study and setting aside times to be dedicated to school work. Sometimes you have to let go of some responsibilities to give yourself time to study.

Q. What is one fun fact about you?

I love working with animals. I have worked with a nonprofit organization that trained dogs for persons with disabilities. I have also worked with mounted horses from a local law enforcement agency and participated in search and rescue.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.

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