I arrived at Tufts for my first year of veterinary school convinced that I would at least apply for the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). I was disappointed to learn that I would be eligible for at most three years of scholarship, but I knew that this was still the best deal out there for me. Medical and dental students can apply for a four year scholarship prior to even starting professional school, but vet students can only get this full ride if they have prior service in the military or were a ROTC cadet as an undergraduate.
At Tufts, I quickly connected with a couple of third and fourth year students who already had HPSP scholarships. They were incredibly helpful in sharing all the ups and downs they had experienced in working with our local Army recruiter. Within a month or two of starting school, they took me and a few other interested first years out for a fancy seafood dinner on the Army’s bill!
Ah, those were the days in the mid-2000s, when the Department of Defense was rolling in money. Don’t worry, though, there are much stricter regulations in place now. Current recruiters have to rely on the benefits of the program itself rather than buying poor vet students’ loyalty with expensive meals.
Do I Really Have to Work Through This Recruiter Guy?
I was pretty turned off by my interactions with our local recruiter. He was a well-intentioned enlisted soldier who had been in the Army for over twenty years, the last three of which had been spent recruiting health professional students in the Boston area. Although he had learned a little bit about interacting with young, driven college graduates, we were clearly not the crowd that he normally hung out with after work.
This negative impression got me thinking, If the Army really wants to recruit the best people to apply as future officers and health professionals, can’t they find someone a little more suited to the job? Now I understand that yes, they probably could, but there are so many moving pieces and so much behind-the-scenes negotiation involved in making assignments that at the end of the day “they” (i.e., the Army) doesn’t always get the right person in the right job. Alas.
I knew that my interactions with Sergeant Recruiter would be limited, and that I needed to swallow my frustrations and make it work. He had been designated my primary gatekeeper into this whole potential world of Army veterinary medicine, and if I wanted any chance at success I needed to do my best to cultivate this relationship over the months ahead.
So that’s what I did. I continued to do all I could to facilitate a successful application. This meant responding to phone calls and e-mails right away, filling out countless forms once, twice, and three times after they were repeatedly misplaced at the recruiting office, and swallowing my frustrations again and again.
Duck Walking and the Medical Screening Exam
My first exposure to the real Army came when I took a two hour drive out to the nearest Army installation to get the required medical screening (aka, the Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS) done for my application. This was a scary experience. I found myself packed into an auditorium with what must have been about a hundred 17 year old guys and girls, all waiting to be poked, prodded, and otherwise physically humiliated in front of a series of Army medics and physicians.
I had arrived expecting a typical medical appointment, but after waiting in line for my first two hours I realized this was going to be anything but ordinary. The highlight was probably stripping down to my boxers, along with ten other guys, to walk, jog, stretch, and even duck walk across an exam room floor in front of a panel of evaluators. Yes, I duck walked.
I honestly felt like I was at one of the sale barns that I grew up going to with my dad, but this time I was the animal being trotted around the ring and auctioned off to the highest bidder!
Much to my relief, the paperwork I collected at the end of the day had a big stamp across the top stating “APPROVED”. One major hurdle down.
This is actually an important thing to understand as you consider your own decision to apply for the HPSP scholarship or join the Army in some other way. The military is quite strict about their physical requirements. If they accept you now as a 25 year old, they are basically committing to the possibility of paying for your medical care for the rest of your life. This means they want to rule out any pre-existing conditions that could make it difficult for you to function as a soldier or that might be expensive to manage for the military healthcare system.
I don’t want to scare you off with this information, though. There are exemptions for almost everything. If you can find a military physician who will sign off on your paperwork and state that the knee injury you suffered in high school will not affect your service in the Army, you should be good to go. Just be aware that this process will be more tedious and difficult than you could probably imagine.
Endless Paperwork and the Application Itself
At this point in the early second semester of my first year at vet school, I was already deeply into the rest of the HPSP application’s tedious requirements. Can you remember every address you have lived at for the past 10 years? How about every foreign country you have visited, along with the dates and the purpose of the visit?
I had just come off a year between undergrad and vet school in which I traveled all over Europe and the Middle East, so I was a little worried that my months in Lebanon and Jordan might raise some unnecessary red flags on this background check for my secret security clearance.
And then there was the essay, also called the letter of intent. How could paint an honest and inspiring picture of myself as the ideal future Army Veterinary Corps officer?
I knew that the people sitting on the board who would decide on these scholarships were a mix of high ranking officers from a variety of different fields. They wouldn’t all be vets or even medical professionals. I needed to convince them all that I was not only serious about being a good veterinarian, but that I was also motivated to use this education in the selfless service of my country!
I will freely admit that I was a tad generous with myself as I penned these inspiring words. I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, but I also didn’t focus on the fact that I really hadn’t thought about the military much before learning about the HPSP scholarship. There was no reason to share that I sometimes wondered about our leaders’ motivation in committing U.S. military might to various situations around the world.
This was the moment to let all my patriotism and honest interest in a military career shine! I brought in the inspiring stories of my great-grandfather, a Presbyterian minister who enlisted in the Army and was killed in the trenches during World War I, and my grandfather, a plant pathologist who helped lead the Allied charge up through Italy in World War II.
I also asked a couple of Army veterinarians I had gotten to know through phone and e-mail conversations to take a look at my essay and share their advice about making it stronger and more convincing. This was key, given my complete lack of experience in understanding military culture and expectations. And this is a service I’m happy to provide for any of you! Just get in touch on my contact page (link) and we’ll go from there.
Check back next week to read about one final hurdle before I was faced with a life-changing decision.
Are you considering applying for the HPSP scholarship this year? How can I help you with the process? Leave a comment to let me know!