For many military spouses completing education and career goals are a major concern as they balance life with a loved one in the military. A Defense Manpower Data Center study revealed that 27.1 percent of military spouses listed furthering their education or training as an important milestone.
While military life may present unique challenges for spouses like frequent moves and funding issues, the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken steps to address those concerns. With help from the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) program, spouses like Leilani McNurlan have reached that goal.
A career development and employment assistance program sponsored by the DoD, MyCAA helps qualifying military spouses pursue licenses, certificates, certifications, or associates degree necessary for gainful employment in high demand, flexible career fields.
"MyCAA has helped me so much financially. Being able to finish my nursing degree without having to create debt while I did it feels great." said McNurlan, who recently graduated from Florida State College at Jacksonville.
The mother of four completed her associate's degree in practical nursing just months after giving birth and while her husband Culinary Specialist Second Class Matthew McNurlan, assigned to amphibious transport dock, USS New York (LPD-21) deployed. With her spouse gone she no longer had a partner to help at home while she attended study groups and turned to family and friends for support. Although the feat of juggling parenting and school was difficult McNurlan says it was worth it.
"Working on a degree is hard by itself but having my spouse working up to deployment and leaving while I was in school made it extra hard," said Leilani. "I'm glad that when Matthew gets home from deployment I'll be able to say that I've accomplished something I've always wanted to do."
MyCAA provides a maximum education benefit of up to $4,000 with an annual fiscal year cap of $2,000 to assist eligible military spouses in obtaining a professional credential needed to pursue their career goals. Annual cap waivers are also available if there is an upfront tuition cost that exceeds $2,000 (up to the maximum education benefit of $4,000).
Spouses of service members on active duty in pay grades E-1 to E-5, W-1 to W-2, and O-1 to O-2 who can start and complete their coursework while their military sponsor is on Title 10 military orders, including spouses married to members of the National Guard and Reserve components in these same pay grades qualify for assistance as well.
Regardless of their eligibility to receive MyCAA assistance counseling services are provided to military spouses of all ranks. Counseling services help spouses identify additional sources of federal, state, and local financial assistance, scholarships, career opportunities, and necessary support resources (e.g., child care, transportation, books, computers, equipment, supplies, etc.).
Despite the various sources of assistance offered through MyCAA many spouses are unaware they are eligible for the program. According to analysis from RAND Corporation, among military spouses who knew about MyCAA, the main reasons they didn't use the program were busy schedules and the misconception they were ineligible. Leilani credits her fellow military spouses with helping her learn about the program and learning who was qualified to receive aid.
"I found out about the program at our last command after they put out a newsletter and a few friends shared info about it through word of mouth, which is why I think it's really good to have friends who are military spouses because they are great resources when you need information," she said. "I think if more spouses knew they didn't have to worry about student loans while they were in school it would be a huge burden lifted. I'm thankful I learned about the program when I did." McNurlan said.
Although pursuing her nursing degree full time with a deployed spouse made for a busy lifestyle Leilani says school also offered a way to focus on self-improvement while taking her mind off deployment.
"I think that's kind of the reason I decided to be in school while Matthew is gone, having something to look forward to like school and making sure I passed my tests really made time go by faster," she said.
"After all the long nights of studying, tears of joy and sadness, it feels amazing to be able to graduate and say that I did it with four kids and while my husband was deployed." Leilani said. It's nice because by the time he gets home I can tell him 'I did it', and now not only is my husband a role model for our kids, but I am too."