SAN ANTONIO (Jan. 4, 2014) -- Deciding what to do after high school graduation can be stressful, especially without having a plan.

Get a job? Hmmm, without skill or experience that probably means working at a minimum wage.

Go to college? That too presents the problem of having to figure out how to pay tuition, after applying and getting accepted, of course. Working part-time, taking out student loans or a combination of the two, are options. Then there is also the dream to attend college on an athletic scholarship.

"Once I decided I was going to go to college, I took out student loans and it took me about 12 years to pay for those," said Brig. Gen. Maria Gervais, deputy commander, U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, Ky.

Twelve years is an awful long time, she said at the National Collegiate Scouting Association Breakfast, Jan. 4, during the 2014 Army All-American Bowl game week.

A portion of the breakfast was devoted to informing parents about college athletic recruiting and the scholarship process.

Gervais' original plan after graduating high school was to attend college on an athletic scholarship.

"I was being heavily recruited," she said. "When I was growing up, my passion was playing basketball and fast pitch softball. There was no more to life than those two things. I played basketball 24/7."

Colleges were recruiting her to play.

"That's every parent's, every kid's dream," she said.

During her final softball game in high school, she tore a ligament.

"All those colleges that were knocking on the door so hard, well, they were still knocking, but the knocking was a lot lighter," she said.

The college recruiter told Gervais could still accept the scholarship, but she would need to show them that she could still play at college level. She knew she could not. She then took out loans to attend college.

"I was the seventh of nine kids," she said. "My parents did not have the money to send us to school."

During her junior year at a small college in South Carolina, she started looking for work but found that getting hired was difficult without any experience.

One day she stopped by an Army recruiting office and decided to enlist for three years. When she told her dad, who had served in the military, he encouraged her to enroll in ROTC. She eventually did.

That was 27 years ago.

She advised the audience of parents it is always good to have a backup plan since, as her experience shows, plans for athletic scholarships can change quickly.

ROTC is one alternative, she said, "although it's not for everyone."

Currently, ROTC is offered at more than 1,300 colleges and universities nationwide through either a full-fledged or partner ROTC program.

Nearly 36,000 students from all ethnicities, all walks of life, and a variety of socio-economic backgrounds have chosen to make Army ROTC part of their college experience.

To help pay for college, students in ROTC can received either a two-, three- or four-year scholarship. Army ROTC is the nation's largest grantor of college scholarships, granting more than $240 million each year to students throughout the country.

Beside receiving a fully paid tuition, ROTC students can earn up to $500 per month in living expenses as well as an allowance for textbooks, classroom supplies and equipment.

Upon graduation from college, ROTC Cadets will be commissioned as second lieutenants. They receive a benefits package, a guaranteed salary, opportunities to travel worldwide, high-tech career training and immediate placement into a leadership position. Furthermore, as commissioned officers, they immediately start getting experience in their vocation that many of their college peers can only hope to gain over the coming years -- giving them a an edge with corporations looking for seasoned leaders who can make an immediate impact.

"Right away, I was given the responsibility to take care of 40 people, their health and welfare, and making sure they completed their missions," she said.

Since joining the Army, Gervais has made the most of her opportunity rising through the ranks as a proven leader capable forming successful teams, systems and processes. Though she may have always possessed the potential and talent, it was the skills learned in the ROTC program that helped lay the foundation for her career of successes.