Suitcase with college gear

Planning College Tours as a MilFam

Now that you’ve learned about funding your children’s college education with the VA loan, it’s time for the fun part: planning college campus tours! We’re on our second round of school visits and I am excited to share the wisdom I learned from our first go-round.

Plan Your Adventure Early

The initial college tour planning might be the most difficult part of the trip. You’ll probably need to balance multiple dates against each other to find the sweet spot, factoring in dates like open campus tours and available leave/vacation time for working parents. If you’re like us, your family might have to split up to cover multiple visits. We’ll all tour one together; then, I’ll take our daughter solo because of my spouse’s pre-planned TDY trip.

Be careful not to cram in too many campuses in one outing. Time flies, and all the schools’ details will blend. Pick two to three colleges within driving distance of each other and strategize the best route to spend several hours at each.

Sign up for Campus Tours ASAP

The early bird gets the best campus tour spots! Months to weeks before your visit, it’s a good idea to check out the college’s tour schedule on their website. They’re usually limited by day and group size, and there’s a good chance that your dates won’t align with the tours.

If you must interact with the student body, don’t sign up for tours while their students are away for a break; try visiting during the summer months. Possibly consider self-guided and virtual tours if your school offers them.

Overnight Stays

Part of the quintessential college visit experience includes an overnight stay in the city where you’re considering investing a lot of money over the next four years. If you’re unfamiliar with the college town, it’s an eye-opening experience for everyone to see how life exists off campus. Unfamiliarity is a good stressor. It helps your kid decide firsthand if they like urban, suburban or rural locations.

Hotels and Vacation Rentals

Just like the best college tour dates, the best overnight accommodations will fill quickly with other out-of-area families. As soon as you secure the dates, make reservations. I often book multiple hotels and then decide later which one to cancel as I learn more about the city and campus.

Keep these criteria in mind to help you decide the best location:

  • Military discounts for lodging. You know about traditional military lodging discounts, but are you familiar with American Forces Travel? It’s an online leisure travel booking website exclusively for members of the U.S. military. You might find a deal on hotels, flights and car rentals.
  • Walkability to and from campus. Is walking to and from campus important to your family? Some prefer the convenience of a walkable location because it saves time and money. We have two schools on our list where students help operate on-campus Marriott hotels, which is so convenient.
  • Parking on campus. A parking spot becomes a big deal if you don’t have one, so make sure you know where plenty of non-ticketed campus parking is located. You’ll also want to check your vehicle’s height for parking garage clearance. This is tricky if you’re storing items in a container up top.

When planning a college trip, rely on the flexibility skills the military has taught you. For example, if your ideal weekend date is booked, consider weekdays instead. You might get more one-on-one attention from the college staff.

And, finally, from one parent to another, leave room for the emotional highs and lows you’ll encounter during the trip. Planning for college is a massive change for everyone, and it’s hard to put strong emotions aside when touring colleges.

Sydney’s husband and children

Why My Children are Blessed to be Army Brats

Every year when I flip the calendar to April, I immediately see purple, and I feel a unique sense of ache in my heart that brings me simultaneous sadness and gratitude for the ones I love most, my children. It is a month to be mindful of what they endure in a lifestyle they didn’t choose, but also a time to feel proud and thankful for the challenges I am continuously given as opportunities to teach them how to get through the difficult times — and more importantly — grow from them.

In the military community, April is recognized as the Month of the Military Child. This year, our children are aged 5, 3 and 1, so I feel like I am just getting to the beginning of the thick of it and learning why it is that our children get an entire month devoted to them in honor of their roles as military children.

Now that our oldest is elementary-aged, we are just arriving at the hard part as we prepare for a PCS this summer. I realize these will be the first good friends he’ll have to say goodbye to. This is the first school he’ll have to leave. This is one of the many fun backyards he’ll have to walk away from. While he doesn’t know it yet; I know it is coming, and it’s even harder knowing that this is just the first time of many. I understand each move will get harder on our children as they grow from adaptable kids to lesser-so-adolescents. I tell myself our children will be okay, and if I handle our move with grace, so will they. As a mother who can’t help but wish for an easy life for my children full of predictability, stability and deeply planted roots, my heart can’t help but hurt at times, knowing what lies ahead for them.

In April, you will hear many military parents speak on this subject. You will read endless articles about how hard military life is on our children. You will also hear the word “resiliency” about one million times in April. We like to remind ourselves of the shiniest of the silver linings: that while this lifestyle will rip our hearts out over and over as we helplessly uproot our children again and again, this will teach them resiliency, and they will be stronger for it.

This is a truth spoken so widely in our community, and I understand its appeal. That our children will become resilient is a fact that deeply reassures us that our children will be fine in the end and that we just need to focus on the big picture. We remind ourselves of all the adults who were once military kids, and how they are now strong and independent people we admire.

What you’ll see less of in April is a celebration for our children. You’ll rarely hear of all the reasons our children are lucky to be in the military community. Of course, those things aren’t always the first that come to mind when we know our children face great challenges. But what we often forget is that they will live a life full of so many more adventures and experiences than other children.

I recently made a list of all the reasons I am thankful our children are lucky to be Army brats, so that way I can go back and remind myself of those things on the hard days and in the difficult seasons, and you can, too:

  • Our children meet more people than most. While our children have to say goodbye more often than most children their age, they also get to experience many more friendships over their youth. If they don’t have a great friend group at one duty station, they can hope for a better one at the next. There is always a fresh start for them. If they don’t like who they were in one place, they start new at the next place. Our children learn to make friends quickly, and they help us to make friends also by getting us out of the house and into the school and church communities.
  • Our children see more places than most. Our children get to see so much of the country as they grow up, and sometimes even more if stationed overseas. They might live in the South for a few years, then the Midwest, followed by the Pacific Northwest and then back to the South. They get to experience different climates with different types of seasons. In some places, the winters are sunny and warm most days, and the summers are only to be survived with water activities and endless popsicles. In other places, the winters are cold and dreary. Our children get to experience bundling up, making snow angels, hiking in the rain, summers spent picnicking every day and spending every waking minute outside soaking up the beauty.
  • Our children are closer to their families than most. Growing up, I’d always heard how “tight-knit” military families were. I understand that reality now. I am already ingraining this idea in my children’s minds that they need to be each other’s best friends. When we move, they will be all each other has. We are a little unit that moves around together, and no matter what changes, the constant is that our family stays together through it all. Building a strong foundation in our marriage and our home life is crucial to instilling this value in our children.
  • Our children will carry more memories than most. This one encompasses everything I listed above. It’s just the reality that our children experience more people and more places, they will have more memories because of it. They’ll have a handful of homes they remember, different bedrooms, different backyards, different schools, churches, friend groups, playgrounds, hiking trails, picnic spots and more. They’ll see their past in endless shades of every different color. They will one day be able to fill an entire book with paintings of their childhood, whereas non-military children might only be able to fill up a few pages. Even when our children miss certain times more than others, they will look back fondly on their childhoods. They’ll eventually forget about the sadness that came with goodbyes because they’ll remember the excitement they felt when you brought them to the next place. They’ll remember how you made each place an adventure. They’ll remember you for embracing wherever you were, making the best of it, and making any place a home. They’ll be good at all of that, too, someday when they’re parents of their own.

The most important thing we can remind ourselves of along this unique parenting journey is that while we are often helpless in where we take our military children, we aren’t helpless in giving them wonderful lives. Even as the walls change colors around them every few years, the backyards change shape and the faces of friends are replaced, we can give them emotional stability despite the physical instability. As their parents, we can lead them by example in growing well wherever we are planted.

This skill is a precious gift we can give to our children, and we can give it to them because they are military children.

I am prepared for a difficult journey in raising our military children, but I’m also confident it is one of the greatest gifts we could give them as parents. Our job is not to give them an easy life, but to teach them how to make the best of a challenging one.

Closet and dishes

Spring Cleaning Hits Different in the 20-Year House

I did the unthinkable last weekend: I pulled every item out of our linen closet. I kept only what had a purpose and place in this house — where we currently live — without a care for the next house.

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you how much stuff we didn’t need, but kept despite purging before every move, “just in case” we needed it at a future residence. Because this is a safe space, and you get the struggle, I will share that I got rid of more than HALF the stuff in that closet.

I found pillowcases and sheets that no longer fit anything we own, curtain panels from my daughter’s “little kid” room that made her eyes roll so hard, I swear, it was audible. I found little 2-by-3-foot entry rugs that haven’t matched our home décor since 2010.

I discovered a large number of sleeping bags for people who do not camp. And, of course, the staple of every military home: several air mattresses to rival the sleeping bags. I also found a Christmas tree skirt that made me regret not doing this in the fall, but because I purchased a new one before Christmas 2023, that one went in the give-away pile too.

We are no strangers to a hefty purge every two to three years, but this time it was different. This time we’re almost — I say almost because I’m not brand new — guaranteed not to move again on military orders. Retirement is in the headlights and, if we get our way, we are staying put until our children graduate from high school.

While it seemed logical to carry around the just-in-case rugs and patched air mattresses (which, honestly, still leak) for the next move, it suddenly seems absurd to hang on to things I know for sure will not see the light of day for a decade.

As we slowly adjust to this concept of not moving again shortly, I’ve found that I have this uncontrollable urge to settle for the first time in a long time — to really unpack boxes and critically organize their contents, not just pull out the items and shove them in a closet to deal with later.

Now, it is later. I’m no longer interested in keeping something just for the sake of having it. I think — I say think because I’m not brand new — I have a pretty good idea of what our next 10 years will look like. That makes it so much easier to look at something we own and decide if it has a place in our present or our future.

My wrath has not been contained to the upstairs linen closet. I’ve been making my way around the house and downsizing in every room:

  • Linens: Bedding, curtains, shower curtains, rugs, bathmats, towels and fabric scraps from my sewing era — gone.
  • Clothing: If it no longer fits (in size, style or lifestyle) or is worn out, it’s out of here. This applies to all closets and dressers in the house. When the kids were younger, I was more inclined to save a sentimental outfit or two from the toss pile, but as they age, I have less and less attachment to the weird things they choose to wear. (Things that admittedly look a lot like what I wore in middle school — a reminder that styles will come around again if you ever feel the need to repurchase something.)
  • Dishes and Kitchen Items: Why do we still have four place settings in wedding china that we never used or felt the need to buy more of? I checked. It’s not even made anymore, and it drips of early 2000s style, which begs the question: What was I thinking? That freed up a shelf. I tossed out random spoons and dishes we acquired at potlucks, duplicate items and the kids’ plastic dishes. (Teens and tweens, I suspect, can handle real dishes). I also tossed the coffee cups that came with our dishes. I am comfortable enough in my skin to know that they will never hold the amount of coffee I require to be a functioning adult, and we had 12 of those little things.
  • Toys: This one has been the toughest. I’ve raised packrats. Despite having a teen and a tween, there are more stuffies than humans in this house. As much as I don’t want to rush them out of childhood, I know we just don’t need tons of blocks, trains, Legos, games, puzzles, water guns and balls. (Why did we have six soccer balls?) The kids are mostly busy with school and extracurriculars, and when they do have free time, it’s dedicated to reading or screen time. The toys were taking up space and collecting dust, so we drastically thinned the herd.
  • Seasonal décor: If an item doesn’t find a place during the first year, it’s out of here unless there is a sentimental reason to keep it.
  • Furniture: This category won’t happen overnight, but we are getting rid of pieces that don’t fit the floorplan we’re in. When necessary, we’re upgrading the furniture that’s weathered a few moves. We’re purchasing solid pieces that will complete each room in our house. I’m okay with this taking longer than it typically would because we aren’t just grabbing some cheap, build-it-yourself furniture to fit a need for a couple of years. We want things that will last; we don’t want to worry about a voyage across the Pacific doing its worst to more expensive furniture.

Unexpectedly, this purge is helping me settle into not only our home, but into the idea that it will be home for a while. I was nervous — still am, honestly — about what I’ll do with myself when I don’t have to move every three years. This exercise in organizing has helped reality sink in. However long we stay in this house, I know it will be full of the people I love, the things that spark joy and have a purpose, and, for once, that’s all I have to worry about.

Featured Topics