Studying STEM as a Student Veteran

Francisco McGee is a U.S. Navy Veteran and studies General Engineering with a focus in Bioinformatics at San Jose State University. He is also a 2015 Google SVA Scholar.


Francisco McGee newAll the new jobs are in tech. Roger that. So why aren’t more enlisted vets pursuing STEM degrees and joining the tech workforce? One of the major roadblocks is education, in particular the STEM prerequisites. For STEM degrees, the reality is that veterans have to start back at pre-college math, such as pre-calculus and algebra. The same is true with the rest of the sciences: chemistry, physics, biology, and so on. This easily pushes graduation past the standard four years allotted by the current G.I. Bill. On the one hand, this discourages many veterans from pursuing STEM who cannot afford that extra year or more. On the other hand, it encourages veterans to rush through a STEM degree, leaving them less prepared and less competitive when they enter the tech workforce. A plan to provide one extra year of G.I. Bill benefits to STEM degree-seeking veterans would alleviate both of these concerns for veterans, giving us the extra time we need to make the risky jump into tech.


Initially, I had planned on pursuing a degree in law when I exited the Navy in 2011. I abruptly changed my mind after I researched the job prospects in law, finding that they were abysmal with no indication of changing. Alternatively, the job research praised tech, and indicated huge growth of jobs at that time and in the foreseeable future. However, the last math class I remembered taking was pre-calculus, so I knew that my G.I. Bill benefits would expire before I finished a STEM degree. The job prospects in tech are what drove my decision to bite the bullet and find some way to pay for the extra time myself.


Tech companies like Google are aware that they don’t have enough veterans, particularly in Software Engineering. They want to hire veterans, they try to hire veterans, but they say that they simply can’t. This is because veterans aren’t passing their programming interviews, and if you can’t get past the interview phase then they can’t give you the job. Veterans aren’t passing the interviews because we don’t have a strong enough STEM education. My guess as to why is that they we’re trying to cram all our courses in before exhausting the G.I. Bill.


As a 2015 Google SVA Scholarship recipient, I am working with other veteran scholarship recipients to address this problem. We’re building an industry-sponsored software engineering fellowship that would bridge the gap in education created by that lost year. The need for this fellowship illuminates the concerns mentioned earlier: there aren’t enough veterans in tech, and those that are do not have a strong enough STEM education.


We need more time for STEM. An extra year of G.I. Bill benefits would incentivize choosing a STEM degree, and it would give us more time to get it done right. The spirit of the G.I. Bill is to allow veterans to pursue an education that makes us employable. We earned that with our service. Because employment lies in tech, the current G.I. Bill is not working as intended, because too many of us are still not getting a STEM education at all, or, the STEM education we receive is insufficient to be truly competitive. An extra year of G.I. Bill would go a long way in helping the G.I. Bill to serve its purpose for veterans in tech. 



We at Student Veterans of America are dedicated to addressing the STEM education issue that many veterans find themselves facing. With roughly 30% of student veterans in STEM education, which traditionally takes more than 4 years to complete, we see that more and more transitioning service members are opting not to peruse a STEM degree in fear of accumulating student debt.


Traditional bachelor degrees generally take 120 credits to complete whereas a STEM degree generally take 144 credits to complete. This is an average of 18 credit hours each semester as opposed to 15 credit hours. This additional class can be particularly difficult for student veterans, given that 49% of them are married or have children with 14% of those students being single parents. Adding to the difficulty of obtaining a STEM degree is the fact that many times veterans are unable to register for the classes they need because they are not granted priority registration at their institution. Because of this, it is not uncommon for student veterans to require a 5th year in higher education. Biomechanical engineering is a great example because it requires both a biology and engineering degree to complete. 


Not only is it important to help student veterans obtain their STEM degree but it is also important for the general national security of the United States. We at Student Veterans of America take pride in our fight to bring an extra year of GI Bill benefits to these high need, high value degree programs. For more on this topic, please visit here


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