View Full Version : Earning a degree ... is no simple task for some

01-24-06, 02:25 PM
Earning a degree ... is no simple task for some
Published Tuesday January 24 2006
The Beaufort Gazette
Gunnery Sgt. Jack Lindsey wasn't going to let something like a deployment to Iraq interrupt his quest for higher education.

While deployed in Iraq from January to July 2005, he completed three more courses of his bachelor's degree in aviation management. One class was taught on base weekly -- rescheduled for any flight missions, of course, and he took a couple classes online, which was erratic at least.

"We never knew when the bad guys were going to attack us," Lindsey said, adding that the Internet connection could be cut off any time without warning, which was risky, especially when taking tests.

At the moment, the aviation maintenance analysis at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is taking two classes and hopes to have his degree done by the end of this year and begin on a master's degree. He's been working toward his degree since 1991 and said he was encouraged to complete his degree when the Marine Corps started in 2003 to pay for 100 percent of tuition for active duty Marines.

"If someone is interested and has the time, you need to jump on it," Lindsey said.

In the past few years, the total tuition coverage has enticed a significantly higher number of active duty Marines to seek a higher education, said Jan Wilson, education services specialist for the Tri-Command.

About 1,100 students are enrolled through her office, about 200 of them civilians who are either family members of active-duty Marines or employees of the Department of Defense, Wilson said.

Several different programs exist for military veterans or reservists, but the vast majority taking advantage of military benefits in Beaufort are active duty, she said.

Seven Institutions offer courses or have offices in the Tri-Command area, some with classes on the air station or Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

The schools usually offer accelerated eight-week terms, so often military students can finish degrees in less time than traditional students, Wilson said.

Juanita Villena-Alvarez, a University of South Carolina Beaufort professor who teaches Spanish classes at the air station and Parris Island in addition to the downtown campus, said her military students are more mature and motivated than her main campus students since they have to make great sacrifices to pursue a college education.

"Some have families, and you see the pull of family responsibilities and work and class," she said.

During her 1 1/2-hour Spanish I class on a recent Wednesday, the nine students watched attentively as she talked about the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the United States, and they practiced diligently with partners the awkward greetings and small talk of brand-new Spanish speakers.

If this were a main campus class, she said she would have to write explicit instructions on the board to help keep the class on task, which is a constant struggle.

In military classes, Villena-Alvarez said she can focus on their direct language needs, including more and more specialized conversation and more of a cultural outlook.

And when it comes to final exams, her military students excel while her others wither in hours of studying.

"They're used to being tired," she said. "When they're tired, they're more energetic. That's very good to me as a teacher. I have to harness that."

Lance Cpl. Shawn Hernandez said he's learning even more what it's like to be tired. He works night shifts at Parris Island and goes straight to school.

Hernandez said he just began college Jan. 9 and is taking three classes, the Spanish class and two at the USCB South Campus in Bluffton. He said he hopes to complete his degree by October 2008 and go on to officer training school.

"I was intimidated at first," said Hernandez, whose wife has been pursuing her degree. "I finally went, and it was like high school, only better."

Hernandez's classmate Navy HM3 Jesse McGill is halfway to a bachelor's degree in nursing has had some increased anxiety over his education lately because he is being deployed to Al Asad in August.

"It's tough," he said. "The one thing that helps most is the flexibility of the teachers. I respect and appreciate it."

Villena-Alvarez said she tries to be as flexible as possible. She's had students take exams earlier, correspond online to finish up the class or even send tapes abroad to help refine speech and pronunciation.

McGill said he plans to finish his current classes before deployment and hopes he has been accepted into the nursing program when he returns. Basically, just pick up where he left off.

The Navy and Marine Corps differ on criteria for their offer of 100 percent tuition assistance. The Navy pays for 12 credit hours per year while the Marines offer a cap of $4,500 a year to active duty. At low state school prices, this can buy a few credit hours.

Tuition assistance pays for only tuition, but Wilson said the only other big cost to military students tends to be books, which she said most are able to pay for themselves by finding them discounted.

Those who exceed the payment caps may seek grants and loans available to all college students, Wilson said. Since 2001, non-veterans have been able to dip into their G.I. Bill funds, she said.

The education office is there to guide interested Marines and students through the enrolling and financial aid process, Wilson said.

"One of our most fun challenges in when they don't know where to start," she said, adding they have career counseling and skill assessments.

Programs to help Marines attain high school equivalency or prepare for college entrance exams are available too, Wilson said.