For active duty and veteran service members alike, it can be intimidating to make the decision to go back to school. It’s a huge transition of lifestyle. That’s where Service to School can assist. Since 2011, the nonprofit has been helping service members gain admission to higher education programs, even their dream schools.
The best part? The service is free.
“The mission of this nonprofit is to provide free undergrad and grad application support for U.S. military veterans and active-duty service members,” CEO Christine Schwartz says. “At the heart of it we want them to get into a school that’s a good fit.
“Often the GI Bill plays a large role in why people want to join the forces. We want to make sure they choose a school that is a good fit for them academically and good for their future, to earn a great degree, get a good job and so on and continue to be a successful human being.”
131 OF 800 ADMITTED TO PROGRAMS OF CHOICE IN 2020
Service to School was founded by three former Army officers: Gus Giacoman, Tim Hsia, Khalil Tawil, and admissions guru Anna Ivey who understood the challenges of transitioning lifestyles from serving to studying. The nonprofit, originally geared to help prospective students gain admittance to MBA programs, has since expanded to help vets get into law school and undergrad business programs, too. Schwartz says S2S is designed to assist service members in utilizing rather than wasting their GI Bill on less-than-reputable online schools — a problem that’s quite common.
“It isn’t uncommon to see a service member sign up for an online school or program thinking they will receive a good degree, but they are actually being taken advantage of,” she says.
S2S aims to find the best fit academically for prospective students through personalized “near peer mentorship” where prospective students are paired with mentors known as “ambassadors” in S2S culture. It’s key that ambassadors have a service background that’s as similar as possible to the prospective student to maximize their chance of admittance. To date, thousands of service members have been through S2S.
The success rate looks pretty good as well. Schwartz says that about 800 service members signed up for MBA programs through S2S in 2020, and through self-reporting, 131 were admitted to a B-school. Schwartz says the admittance number is probably higher, but not all students report back to them. Also, not all service members use the mentorship program; some sign up for the other resources.
“It’s one thing for a veteran to meet a civilian and that civilian says, ‘Hey I got into Harvard Business School,’ but then to meet another veteran who says, ‘Hey I got into Harvard Business School and here’s how I wrote my application essays and told my story,’” says Schwartz, herself a former Army officer. “It’s creating a lot more confidence for that veteran because they’re hearing it from somebody who has a similar past.”
Creating confidence can mean the difference between service members deciding to go back to school or not. Having support and knowing they have similar individuals in their corner cheering them on is crucial, especially when the veteran percentage at any university is so small — fewer than 10%. S2S asks for a resume, draft essays, and some basic documents to best pair students with ambassadors — fairly simple. The nonprofit boasts a dedicated group of around 350 ambassadors and growing.
“Veterans and active-duty service members use our service, and for those who tell us they had a good experience, we ask them to come back. That is how we sustain having a large number of ambassadors. Volunteering is their ‘thank you,’ if you will,” says Schwartz.
HELPING TO UNDERSTAND THE ADMISSIONS PROCESS
Steven Hojnicki was so pleased with his experience at S2S that he’s now a volunteer faculty member. Hojnicki, who is active-duty Army, is one of three who specifically handle the nonprofit’s MBA operations. He resides in Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he’s served for around two of his 12 years in the Army.
Under the wing of his ambassador and now good friend Jonathan Bulls, Hojnicki chose to attend the College of William and Mary in Virginia, completing his MBA in 2019. At the time, Hojnicki was stationed in Germany and toying with the idea of applying to business school. He heard of S2S by word-of-mouth.
Hojnicki says Bulls “outlined how the relationship would work, and he strategized with me. He was both supportive and encouraging. To this day he is a good friend. I had a great experience that motivated me to want to pay it forward, and I’ve moved into this role and it’s just been a blast.”
“A lot of the time we are talking them through understanding the admission process, what specifically Stanford, for example, is looking for. And for those who just want information on admissions, that’s available too. That’s okay; part of what we want to do is provide them with free resources. We give them tools to help them on their journey,” says Hojnicki.
One exclusive S2S resource that prospective students commonly use is a discount code for GMAT exam prep services Manhattan prep and Veritas prep. Some people come to S2S solely for this; they don’t see all students through to admittance.
Hojnicki took on a specific project this past year: revamping S2S’s six-year-old guidebook. The new version was released in early December. The guidebook walks service members through different aspects of applying to business school and serves as central location for admissions information.
INVITATION: GET A MENTOR, EXPLORE A RETURN TO SCHOOL
Hojnicki found that available admissions information is specifically geared toward active-duty service members and veterans. The problem, he says, is that the information is scattered. “The guidebook serves as a ‘one-stop shop,’” he says, particularly for those deployed overseas who may not have access to technology or time to spend scouring the internet.
Over the summer, Hojnicki heard from a number of people that the guidebook was outdated, and he found himself spending tons of time answering the same questions from prospective students. So he took on the task of updating the guidebook — first to contribute to the social prosperity of S2S, and then to make work easier for himself. He changed it from its previous PDF form into a living document through a service platform free to nonprofits called GitBook.
Hojnicki notes that it is important this guide be a living document because times are changing, admissions are changing.
“With shifting lifestyles during this Covid19 pandemic, servicemembers are seeking information regarding part-time or executive MBA programs,” he says. “Some programs are fully virtual now. The previous guidebook only focused on full-time MBA programs.”
The guidebook was recreated through feedback from S2S’s large network of Army, Navy, Military, Air Force and Marine ambassadors as well as top university admissions faculty. Hojnicki sought to learn how admissions faculty view veterans to give them the best chance at admission. “What do they see? The good, the bad, the ugly. How do we present when we interview, how do our essays look, how we can stand out?” he wondered. To his surprise, he got many thoughtful responses from very busy admissions faculty from 6 top universities.
Schwartz and Hojnicki encourage active-duty service members and veterans of any rank to make the service-to-schooling transition with the guidance of S2S. “This year we are seeing tons of business school applications,” Hojnicki says. “There’s no reason not to use Service to School, to come get a mentor and have that person walk you through options. I think that’s super important, to have a mentor for encouragement and a sounding board.”