Ian Tierney: My Journey from the Marine Corps to the University of Chicago

Over eight years ago I graduated high school in the bottom 10% of my class. This fall, I will once again be a full-time student at the University of Chicago. You may be asking yourself, how could a top tier school with a 6.2% acceptance rate possibly accept a student like him? It is not because I am some secret genius or Medal of Honor recipient. I never served in a combat zone and I am not the type of person who walks into a casino and leaves with arms full of cash. What I did do was learn from my mistakes and take advantage of the opportunities provided to every servicemember.

I spent my time in the Marine Corps in the aviation community. Like many job fields in the military this came with tumultuous working hours and little wriggle room for failure. When I realized that I wanted to go back to school, I went to the education center on base and told the counselor that I wanted to take a class, but it needed to fit in my schedule. She recommended that I check out a school they worked with that offered online courses; it was a for-profit school. A couple years and ten courses later, I came to understand that these courses meant almost nothing because the quality of education was not on par with that of any respected university. After doing my own research, I changed schools and started all over again. All of these courses were paid for by Tuition Assistance. The one thing that I did for myself is work my hardest and get an “A” in every class I took.

“Elite universities throughout the country are looking to add more veterans to their campuses.”

Just about a year ago, I decided to leave the Marine Corps. I, like every other Service Member, attended the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and found that I was woefully underprepared for my transition. The resources that they provided did not give me the guidance I needed to make an educated decision about what my next step in life would be. Luckily, I got some awesome guidance from the USO Pathfinder Program and my Transition Specialist. With their help, I found out that elite universities throughout the country are looking to add more veterans to their campuses. I was doubtful about my chances from day one but the worst-case scenario was I didn’t get in. Even after receiving the call that I had been accepted, I felt that it was a miracle. However, looking back I should never have doubted myself. I am going to share a little secret: there is such a low rate of applications from qualified veterans that by solely earning a high transfer GPA, you have a great chance of gaining admission to at least one top tier university. Do not get me wrong—you absolutely need to work on your extracurriculars, personal statements, and standardized test scores. But at no point should you doubt yourself.

I am not someone who lives with regrets, but if I could go back in time, I would want to have a conversation with myself two years ago. I would tell myself or anyone else in a similar situation to start taking classes at a local community college (specifically Math and English), volunteer more, and find something you are passionate about and distinguish yourself in that area. By that I mean, start a philanthropic group of your own, coach a youth sports team, BE A LEADER IN YOUR COMMUNITY. That is the key. Everyone must transition out of the military at some time and at that point we all have a test. It is an open book test, but to get the best grade you must prepare and put in the work beforehand. Organizations like Next Step Inbound, Service 2 School, and USO Pathfinder are there to help you be as prepared as possible but, ultimately, it boils down to your commitment to your own success. So, go put in the work and reap the rewards because they are there for the taking. If a guy from the bottom of his class can make it into of the most prestigious schools in the country, so can you.

Written by: Ian Tierney