Can you tell us about your military background and your path toward attending college?

I always knew I would go in the military because it has been something my family has done for generations. I started off with my first duty station at Fort Sherman in Panama. The 3rd of the 7th special forces put on a jungle jump school on Ft. Sherman and I was fortunate enough to attend. From Panama, I was assigned to 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Then came the 297th Military Intelligence Unit and on to Fort Ord in California where I was part of the 1st of the 9th Infantry Regiment (the Manchus) of the 7th Infantry Division. I was then reassigned to recruiting duty where I was eventually medically retired. I attended college courses as I could while on active duty. With multiple deployments is was difficult to keep a regular college schedule, but time was available to get a semester in every once in a while. I did not always see the importance of college as a youth, but when I would see officers that were college graduates come and take charge of a 33-man platoon and lead troops from the start of their career, I began to see the weight and importance of a college education.

What was the driving force behind your return to school after serving in the military?

The driving force for me to return to school was a desire to learn. While on a patrol in Panama City, we were coming out of a shanty town and there was a little girl playing in a sewer-infested drainage ditch. As we crossed over a foot bridge, she picked up a saucepan full of ditch water and poured it into her mouth then stood there like a pretty statue and spewed a little stream of water out. I have never felt such gratitude in my life and I hoped that somehow our actions in Panama would make her life so much better. The main thought that went through my head was, “What would a little education do for her?” From that point on, I was driven to become an educator.

What are the three most important attributes or characteristics a veteran should consider when selecting a university?

  1. Does that university teach what you want to major in?
  2. Is there a strong veteran presents there? This might be a veteran's advisor in admissions or the registrar's office, a veteran's club that brings you together on campus so you can network and feel comfortable among like-minded people, etc.
  3. A university needs to have a good name and a reputation of rigor and excellent placement of its graduates.

How important is a university's sense of community for veterans when deciding on a college?

The community of veterans is pretty important to the new person coming into the world of education. They can help new students with paperwork and scheduling, which is invaluable.

How does the GI Bill influence a veteran or service member's choice to pursue a higher education?

The GI Bill opens the door for many veterans who otherwise would not be able to afford the expenses involved in higher education.

What advice would you give students who don't believe they can attend college as a veteran?

Choose a school that you can afford if cost is a barrier. If you believe that you aren't smart enough because you are just an infantryman or other crawl-in-the-mud MOS, just remember that those schools exist under the flag that you own a part of. Being a veteran gives you a clear path to get things done and an education is one that should be very clear. Do not cross bridges that are not there. School is not just for the ultra-smart, school is for those who know how to work hard and achieve. You are all of that!

There are tests that will help you start at the appropriate level that you need to start your educational journey. I took every remedial and introductory math class there was to take before I could get into college-level algebra. I used the tutoring center daily. Being a veteran, I knew how to put in the long hours and persevere. College is not easy, but veterans know how to deal with that so don't be afraid to fail. Most likely, you will succeed.

What advice would you give to a prospective veteran student who is in the first stages of their college search?

Find colleges that have a major that fits what you most want to do. Do not pick something that sounds like it will make the most money or would be good in any economy, pick something you really want to do and follow your dream. Visit the college in-person and get to know people in the veteran's office and find out what they are like. Meet with professors and see how much they care and how into teaching they are.

What are some of the ways family and friends can support student veterans during their time of transition?

If family will treat school like a long deployment, it will help because when your veteran goes to school, they are in school day and night. If not actually in class, they are in the library or doing homework at home. Give them a quiet place to study where interruptions are minimal. Be understanding if they cannot attend normal functions because papers are due the next day. Be encouraging and curios. Dinner time is a great time to ask how their studies are going. They do have to eat and dinner is time to sit and socialize with the family and catch up on things.

What are some struggles you faced when transitioning into school?

I went from being one of the most important people on the battlefield to being the dumb old guy that asked way too many questions. The kids just out of high school knew all the formulas and answers and I knew very little. How were you able to overcome them? I was able to recruit help by forming study groups and taking charge of discussions that included the smart kid. I always respected abilities and realizing that I had as much ability as the next guy, just not the earlier opportunity to learn the immediate subject, made a big difference. We are all on different learning levels even in the same class in the same degree plan.

What beneficial internal programs did you take advantage of? How did they affect your life?

I took great advantage of tutoring. Every chance I got, I would sit down with a tutor. One day the tutor asked me if I wanted to join the honors society. I laughed and said "No, that is just for those with a high GPA." She laughed and said "Well yes!" I did not realize that my GPA had qualified for an honors program.

I also participated in counseling with the VA. I thought that tutoring was getting me through school, when actually it was earning the highest GPA I ever had. The counseling was fantastic and focusing. I not only survived school, but I thrived on it. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed school.

Andy Swapp

Director of Wind Energy Technology at Mesalands Community College

Andy Swapp is a retired United States Army Infantry Sergeant and the current director of wind energy technology at Mesalands Community College. While serving in the U.S. Army, he attended Jump School, the Sabalauski Air Assault School, and completed the Rappel Master course. Andy was also an instructor in urban combat and a master fitness trainer at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama. After many deployments, Andy was medically retired. His uniform hangs in the closet with two meritorious service medals among other commendations, but the one above them all is the combat infantryman's badge. Andy joined Mesalands Community College in 2015 as director of wind energy technology. He earned a bachelor of science in technology and engineering education, as well as a master's degree in engineering and technology. He has worked summers as a wind farm consultant and construction worker building commercial-scale wind farms. He has been published in the tech directions journal and has authored a book titled “The Education Animal.”