How DO You Do It?

A conversation between two military spouses, a teacher and student 

By Kristen Obst, PhD

In the past I have offered advice on education based on my experience as an educator or as a student, which is getting farther and farther away from my time in school. This time I turned the tables, I decided to ask the question military spouses probably hear every day, how do you do it?

I interviewed Keiana Belton, a graduate student in the Public Administration program at American Military University.  Belton is a Navy wife who, like many of our students, works full time while raising her family (three boys ages 4-19).

Kristen Obst: What did you do right and what did you do wrong, when trying to juggle education as a military spouse?

Keiana Belton: Let’s start with what I did wrong first.  In the beginning, I hadn’t even given graduate school a second look.  I felt like I was finished with school. End of story.  By the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I had regrets about not going back.  I told myself that had I just gone back two years ago I would’ve been two years into my career. By this time, I had already had another child. 

Even though my family and I had experienced something so devastating, I decided I would return to school.  I hated depending on my husband for things.  I wanted to depend on me. So, I stepped out on faith. 

No, doubt it has been a very hard road, but it’s a road I’m happy I decided to travel.  Being an inspiration for my children was the best gift one could ever have. I’m about to finish school with a Master’s degree; I’m still a bit shocked myself!

Kristen Obst:  So the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was your “aha moment” that it was time to enroll in grad school?  What do you have to say to military spouses who are like you, before Katrina?

Keiana Belton: Well, before Katrina I was enrolled at Southern University of New Orleans.  I was enrolled in the substance abuse undergraduate program.  When Katrina hit, I was forced to abandon my studies and come to Houston, Texas.  I enrolled at the University of Houston where I received my undergraduate in psychology with a concentration in health. 

My family and I were in Houston with no family or friends.  I felt distant and alone, but there was something inside of me that said “you can do it.” So I rose to the occasion and made the choice to go to graduate school. 

For those of you who have experienced devastation in your lives, know that whatever the devastation may be it can only hold you back if you allow it to.  I understood that by taking back control of my life, I could get myself through whatever obstacle came my way.

Kristen Obst:  How many classes do you take at a time? How did you arrive at that number?

Keiana Belton: In the beginning when my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, I took six hours of class. (At AMU, that is 2 graduate classes.)  Considering it was my very first time in graduate school, I wanted to get a feel of how things would be.  After two 8 week sessions, I realized that I could handle more classes if I spaced them out.  This has proven to be a good plan for me.  So now I take at least 9 hrs. per 8 week session, or three classes.  That works for my schedule, which includes working full-time and being a full-time mother. 

Kristen Obst:  What motivated you to keep with your graduate program when your husband was deployed? 

Keiana Belton: The one thing that motivated me to stay committed to my graduate program was myself.  Sometimes as a wife, mother, and friend, women forget who they are.  You become so engulfed in the roles that you forget yourself in the midst of the storm.  I knew a long time ago I enjoyed helping others, and I knew that the best way I could help others was to help myself first. 

Kristen Obst:  I know how busy you are and how emotional and sometimes complicated life can be as a military spouse. What advice do you have for me, as your professor, to better support you as a military spouse? 

Keiana Belton: As a professor, being understanding of military spouses is plus.  Many military spouses have children and households that they are trying to maintain without the other spouse being at home.  I know that graduate school is not intended to be easy, but sometimes professors forget that the people they are teaching have lives outside of the classroom and are trying to do their best with all of their commitments. Patience, understanding and compassion are all important. 

What I learned from this conversation is that:

  1. Sometimes you need a wakeup call to realize that the time for school is now, although I hope it doesn’t come in the form of a major natural disaster for others. Don’t wait for your life to calm down because it isn’t ever going to calm down, and don’t wait for a hurricane.
  2. You need to figure out a system to manage your classes and figure out what course load you can handle.
  3. Keep your eyes on the prize (graduation!) and stay motivated by little victories along the way.
  4. Find a school that is empathetic, not just to service members, but to military spouses as well.

From one military family to another, Happy Holidays!

About the Author

Kristen Obst is the Program Director for the Public Administration and Security Management Programs and Associate Professor of Public Administration at American Public University System. She is the proud mother of two little boys and her husband is active duty Army. She is still learning how to juggle parenting, work and military life.  

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