‘Callsign Starbucks:’ How a sailor used the GI Bill to study coffee in Italy

When then-Lt. Cmdt. Justin Will applied for a job like a country office officer with US Europe Command in Stuttgart, Germany, to oversee US and foreign allied leaders in foreign affairs, more than a few raised eyebrows.

Because while Will’s resume lists such experiences as an underwater supply officer aboard the Virginia-class attack submarine New Mexico and a degree in business management from Albion College, he also lists a recent master’s degree in coffee science from the Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy. .

While Will eventually got the job, he also got the callsign “Starbucks,” a joke he loves not only because of his respect for Starbucks as a brand, but also because it’s a great topic. discussion, he said.

“One of my favorite things about coffee is that everyone loves it,” Will said. “Even if they don’t drink it, they usually still like the smell of it or the fact that it brings people together.”

In addition to people’s love of coffee, the callsign also serves as a transition to a topic Will is passionate about – how the military can creatively use their veterans’ benefits to build the life they want outside. of the Army.

“Whenever I talk to people coming out of active duty or the reserves, I try to advocate for a different path,” he said. “I think when people make the transition, it’s easy for them to think about going the traditional college or graduate route, but there’s a lot of room for creativity.”

Navigating the Post 9/11 GI Bill

For Will, thinking outside the box meant abandoning his efforts to get a master’s degree in architectural studies and instead pursuing one in coffee science and economics.

Will’s particular program was organized by a partnership of schools and titans of the coffee industry, including the University of Trieste, University of Udine, International Graduate School for Advanced Studies of Trieste, the Association of Molecular Biomedicine and the Industrial Coffee Cluster of Trieste.

It also included a combination of university professors teaching subjects such as engineering and agronomy – the science of soil management and agricultural production – in addition to courses taught by professionals from the coffee company Illy , one of the largest coffee companies in the world.

Will said his program has even brought in professionals to teach topics such as the green coffee business to provide insight into the industry. The program, he said, was unmatched by any other he had seen in the United States.

Knowing this was the program for him, Will began the process of obtaining his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits by checking the requirements on the VA 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 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 awarded by accredited American colleges and universities. For private schools abroad, the diploma must also be of equal value to those issued by public schools in the same country, with the same admission conditions.

The program must also offer at least an associate degree or international equivalent.

“The GI bill can be very simple for schools in the United States,” Will said. “A lot of universities here have a designated person to sort out VA benefits, especially at larger schools. But when we talk about international schools, they usually have no idea what’s going on because they don’t know how to deal with the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

As the first VA recipient applying to the program, Will ran into the problem of not only getting the VA to recognize the school as accredited – the first step in applying to a foreign institution – but also of making agree to the school itself how the VA handles student tuition payment and financial support.

“I had to translate documents between Italian and English,” Will said. “There were also various ways that I had to prove to college that I had financial backing to go there, and to prove to the VA that it was a real school with a real curriculum.”

But when Will needed help, he simply called the VA education line and said he almost always got help with any questions he had.

In total, it took about a year to get everything located with paperwork on both ends, Will said. But now that he has, another user will be able to use the same program without having to jump through all the hoops he has done. In theory, they could simply prove that they are eligible for benefits and then send the school information to the VA in the same way as recipients in the United States.

“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 since this is a government program we’re talking about,” Will added.

As part of the international GI Bill program, Will’s tuition and accommodation were paid for. For international schools however, benefits do not vary by location like in the US, with current international VA rates hovering around $25,000 for tuition and around $1,700 for monthly housing allowance.

‘Really worth it’

Will, promoted to Major in 2019 and now still serving on reserves, runs his own business, Inspired Coffee Merchants, which imports and sells coffee and coffee products while working directly with farmers. He’s also branched out into working with coffee fruits – using fruit skins to make tea – and is starting a separate business that takes used coffee grounds and turns them into pellets that can, in theory, heat up. people’s homes.

Throughout the pandemic, Will has also run a monthly coffee subscription service that delivers coffee products from around the world to people stuck at home.

So while the Navy doesn’t necessarily recognize one’s master’s degree in coffee for career progression, Will said, it matters to the VA, and that’s what matters when looking for programs in industries they wish to continue after the army.

“I know it’s tough, this transition from active duty to reserve or active duty to civilian, it’s shocking,” Will said. “But if you use your perks correctly, you’ll have enough to get the four-year degree you might need for a degree and a program you really want to take.” It doesn’t have to be a situation or situation.

“I had to jump through a lot of hurdles to get into this program,” Will said. “But in the end, it was definitely worth it.”

Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, a Penn State alumnus, and a master’s candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.