My educational journey: a command chief

  • Published
  • By Retired Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Westermeyer
  • Team Eglin
A few years ago I was asked to be the commencement speaker at a Community College of the Air Force graduation. I gladly accepted and over the next few weeks, I worked on developing a speech that would be meaningful and hopefully enlightening.

However, as I completed my research, I was amazed by what I discovered. It was this discovery that made me challenge myself to go back to school and get my bachelor's degree.

What I found out was around 30 percent of our nation's population ages 24-55 have a bachelor's degree. Compare that to our active-duty enlisted who, according to Air Force demographics, about six percent of our enlisted force have their bachelor's degree. This realization had an impact. With almost 27 years of service, soon I would retire and enter into the workforce of our nation and be competing against the almost 30 percent that already had their degrees.

At this point, I challenged myself to earn my degree before I retired, even if it meant taking one class at a time.

After a quick visit to my education center, I enrolled in an on-line university - one that I could commit to and would work with me to meet my goals. Due to my non-standard work schedule and numerous community events, it had to be flexible and at the same time challenging. This is where my journey began.

For the next three years, I committed to taking at least one class every term. There would be no breaks. I had to make sure I put aside time, usually only a few hours during the week and typically one entire day every other weekend to complete my assignments. I left time for my family and to still enjoy life, but when it was time to study or complete the assignments, I set enough time aside. To me, it was like planning for the future - very much like a long-term investment.

However, none of this would have been possible without utilizing the resources available. The base library was a huge resource and the staff was always there to help. At times, especially towards the end of my journey, when I would have trouble getting certain reference materials or unable to find enough research information, the staff was always there to help. That was a huge stress relief.

The education center is always there to assist as well, especially when you're struggling between work and school. My advice to anyone faced with this stressor is to engage early with the staff. They have the ability to work between your school, your work schedule and your tuition.

My official retirement was Oct. 1, 2011. My last class was completed July 2011. After completing 17 classes, ($17,000 worth of tuition assistance), I was able to earn my diploma and I immediately started looking for jobs. What I found was every job I applied for required at least a bachelor's degree as a minimum requirement. In fact, many jobs stated a master's degree was preferred, but none of the jobs stated my 30 years of military experience, leadership or job knowledge could substitute for a bachelor's degree. In order to at least get my resume past the desk of the receptionist, I had to have a degree from a four-year school.

Next week, I start my new job and I can't wait to get back to work. The new job will bring on new challenges and many more experiences, none that would have been possible if I had not made my commitment to earn a degree.

It was hard work and there were sacrifices, but the investment is worth the effort and the difference in pay will last for many more years than the sacrifice. The key is to not give up, make a commitment and stick with it, use your resources and know there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you commit, you can succeed and the benefits will last a lifetime.

Chief Westermeyer was the 96th Air Base Wing and Air Armament Center command chief prior to retiring from the Air Force.