For a man with three college degrees, Marine Maj. Eric Flanagan never liked school in the beginning.
Fed up at the thought of entering another classroom and with his parents unable to help pay for college, Flanagan joined the Marine Corps in 2001 after graduating high school. His view of education changed as he served a five-year enlistment before deciding to become an officer. That transition required an undergraduate degree, so Flanagan enrolled at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.
“I knew a lot of people who had gone to school [straight out of high school] and used it as an opportunity to party and have fun, and they didn’t make it,’’ said Flanagan, 37. “The Marine Corps helped me to avoid that trap. I really enjoyed my time in college.’’
Flanagan earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications in 2008 and has gone on to receive master’s degrees in media studies from San Diego State and leadership from Marshall University. Flanagan currently works in the public affairs office at the Pentagon.
Enlisted service members who go to school to become commissioned as officers don’t fit one mold. Some have families. Some have previous college experience. Some are a decade or more removed from the last time they crammed for a test. All persevered.
“I have a tendency to put things off,’’ said James Phillips, a 29-year-old second lieutenant who earned a psychology degree from George Washington University in 2017 as part of the Army’s Green to Gold program.
“I found out early on that you have to have a plan going into it and get yourself structured to getting things completed on time. And if you have questions, ask them.’’
Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Peterson is pursuing a political science degree at the University of Idaho and expects to be commissioned in May.
After graduating from high school, Peterson worked at a beer distribution plant before attending a community college in Bellevue, Washington, for a few semesters. He always considered the military an option and as he drove home from class one day he decided to enlist.
Peterson, 32, said he thought about becoming an officer during his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2013 when a lieutenant praised his leadership skills. Four years later, while a drill sergeant in South Carolina, Peterson submitted his application packet.
“I felt I could make a bigger impact on people as an officer,’’ he said.
Beyond a degree, going to college can reward enlisted personnel with unexpected experiences.
Flanagan took classes in acting and Chinese philosophy. Peterson spent more time with his wife and three sons, all under the age of 10. Lt. Cmdr. Clint Ludlow actually played a season of college football as a linebacker while working toward a nursing degree from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
Far older than the average player, Ludlow was nicknamed “Grandpa’’ by teammates. He enlisted in the Navy 23 years ago and was commissioned in 2009.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Ludlow, 42, said of his degree. “Sometimes in the enlisted community, you know your place, and it’s on the lower end of the totem pole … It gave you a sense of completion, something to be proud about.’’
Enlisted service members considering becoming officers could experience that feeling, too.
“A lot of times, enlisted [personnel] don’t do these programs that are in place, and these programs are looking for them,’’ Phillips said. “You’re going to hear a lot of people tell you no during your career, but you do everything in your power to get to the ‘yes.’’’
Peterson agrees. “My biggest piece of advice is just go for it,’’ he said.
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