When Lt. Cmdr. Justin Will applied for a position as a Country Desk Officer with U.S. Europe Command in Stuttgart, Germany, to supervise U.S. and foreign allied leaders in foreign affairs, more than a few eyebrows raised.
Because while Will’s resume listed experiences such as Submarine Supply Officer aboard the Virginia-class attack submarine New Mexico and a degree in business management from Albion College, it also listed a recent Master’s degree in coffee science from the Università degli Studi di Trieste, in Italy.
While Will ultimately got the position, he was also consequently given the callsign ‘Starbucks,’ a joke he loves not only because of his respect for Starbucks as a brand, but because it’s a great talking point, he said.
“One of my favorite things about coffee is that everyone likes it,” Will said. “Even if they don’t drink it, they generally still like the smell of it or that it brings people together.”
In addition to people’s love of coffee though, the callsign also serves as a segue into a topic Will is passionate about — how service members can creatively use their veterans’ benefits to build the lives they want outside of the military.
“Whenever I do talk to people who are transitioning off of active duty or the reserves, I try to advocate for taking a different path,” he said. “I think when people transition it’s easy for them to think of going the traditional college or grad school route, but there’s a lot of room for creativity.”
Navigating the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill
For Will, wandering from the beaten path meant dropping his efforts toward a master’s in architectural studies, and instead, pursuing one in coffee science and economics.
Will’s particular program was hosted by a partnership of schools and coffee industry titans, including the University of Trieste, the University of Udine, the International Superior School of Advanced Studies of Trieste, the Association of Molecular Biomedicine, and Trieste’s Industrial Coffee Cluster.
It also included a combination of university professors teaching subjects like engineering and agronomy — the science of soil management and crop production — in addition to classes from business professionals from the Illy coffee company, one of the largest coffee companies in the world.
Will said his program even brought in professionals to teach subjects like green coffee trading to give insights into the industry. The program, he said, was unmatched by any of the others he’d seen stateside.
Knowing this was the program for him, Will started the process of getting his Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits by checking out the requirements on the VA’s website specifically for foreign programs.
“There’s language in there that describes what counts as an eligible degree,” Will said. “It might be easier if you start by looking at known universities, accredited institutions that you want to go to, and then look to see if they have the program you want,” he suggested.
According to the VA, this means that the desired degrees must be similar to those granted by accredited U.S. colleges and universities. For private overseas schools, the degree must also be of equal value to to ones granted by public schools in the same country, with the same entrance requirements.
The program must also offer at least an associate’s degree, or an international equivalent.
“The GI bill can be really straightforward for the schools in the U.S.,” Will said. “A lot of the universities here have a designated person to sort out the VA benefits, especially at the bigger schools. But when we’re talking about international schools, they just usually have no idea what’s going on because they don’t know how to deal with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”
As the first VA beneficiary applying to the program, Will ran into the problem of not only needing to get the VA to recognize the school as accredited — the first step in applying to foreign institution — but to also get the school itself to accept how the VA handles paying tuition and backing students financially.
“I had to translate documents back and forth between Italian and English,” Will said. “There were also variety of ways that I had to prove to the university that I had financial support to go, and to prove to the VA that it was a real school that had a real program.”
But when Will did need help, he would simply call the VA’s education line, and said he was nearly always helped with any questions he did have.
In total, it took about a year to get everything situated with paperwork on both ends, Will said. But now that he’s done it, another benefit-user will be able to use the same program without having to jump through all of the hoops he did. In theory, they’ll be able to simply prove that they are eligible for benefits and then send the VA the school’s information in a similar manner as beneficiaries in the United States do.
“It’s all on the board now, so to speak, for the school and the VA,” he said. And overall, it “was surprisingly easy to venture off the beaten path, especially considering this is a government program we’re talking about,” Will added.
As part of the international G.I. Bill program, Will’s tuition and housing was paid for. For international schools though, benefits do not vary based on location like they do in the United States, with current international rates from the VA sitting around $25,000 for tuition and approximately $1,700 for the monthly housing stipend.
‘Totally worth it’
Will, now based out of Vermont but still serving in the reserves, runs his own company, Inspired Coffee Merchants, that imports and sells coffee and coffee products while working directly with farmers. He also has branched out into working with coffee fruit — using the skins of the fruit to make tea — and is starting a separate company that takes used coffee grounds and turns them into pellets that can, in theory, heat people’s homes.
Throughout the pandemic, Will has also managed a monthly coffee subscription service that provides coffee products from around the world to people stuck at home.
So, while the Navy may not necessarily recognize his master’s in coffee for career progression, Will said, it counted to the VA, and that’s what matters if one is looking for programs in industries they want to pursue post-military.
“I know it’s tough, that transition from active duty to reserves or active to civilian, it’s jarring,” Will said. “But if you use your benefits correctly, you’ll have enough to get yourself the four-year degree you may need for credentialing and a program that you really want to do. It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.”
“I had to jump through a lot of hoops to go do that program,” Will said. “But in the end, it was totally worth it.”
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master's candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.