Taking The Classroom To The Student

January 27, 2009

When a Soldier deploys, whether he or she is active duty, or National Guard or Reserve, they put their lives at home on hold, for how ever long their deployment. With the op-tempo being the way that it currently is, that can mean anywhere from 12 to 15 months and in some cases even more.

As a Soldier, they leave everything behind to do our nation’s bidding. Perhaps their family is expecting a new baby. They might not be able to be home for that. If they’re National Guard or Reserve, they leave their full-time job behind and perhaps lose the opportunity for advancements. Or perhaps one of their children is graduating from High School. Again, they might not be able to attend that event. Some Soldiers, are students themselves, and when they deploy, they put their education on hold. Some will return to school once their deployment is over and others don’t. Colleges often aren’t willing to work with the students to complete their class if they end up deploying in the middle of a semester. When my son deployed to Kosovo, in 2001, the spring semester wasn’t quite over with at the college he was attending. While most of his professors were more than willing to work with him and allow him to take his exams early, there were a couple that weren’t. Unfortunately, he had to drop out of those classes.

Recognizing the importance of attending college course, one university has decided to offer face to face classes, by taking the classroom to the students in the middle of the war zone in Iraq. The University of Maryland is the first US college to offer these classes. Not only does this allow student Soldiers to continue to work on their education, but it also offers them a few hours away from the chaos of war, and gives them a sense of normalcy.

One student, SSG Bryan Julain had never attended college prior to his deployment. When offered the chance to do so in the war zone, he jumped at the chance. Now, not only is he juggling his rifle and dealing with the stressors of war, but he’s also taking on textbooks and homework and he loves it.

“It’s actually quite nice,” said Julian. “I’m in the National Guard, I’m a police officer back home, so my definition of normal is probably different from someone else’s.”1

Currently Julian has been in Iraq for 5 months, serving as a medic and has another 7 months to go on his deployment. He figured during his downtime it wouldn’t hurt to take a couple of classes to keep himself busy. So he enrolled in sociology and criminal justice classes. His goal once he returns home to his job is to one day become a detective.

In the past, some colleges have offered on-line courses that Soldiers could take. The problem with that is the fact that internet connections in the country tend to be very slow and if a communications blackout is imposed due to a death, then they don’t have internet access at all; sometimes for several days.

Currently there are 6 University of Maryland professors in Iraq teaching classes. Before they go, they are provided with military training, they learn about Iraqi culture, safety protocols and anti-terrorism. Each are assigned military protective equipment. Classes can sometimes be a challenge. Attendance policies in place, allow students to miss classes due to having to be on a mission. One professor, Mark Fisch, remembers teaching one class, as mortars and rockets began exploding outside the classroom.

“Obviously, you have to stop lecturing and deal with that,” he said. “There are incoming mortars, but it’s rare.” 2

Classes are held on Joint Base Balad, which is located about 40 miles north of Baghdad. The building that houses the classrooms was formerly Saddam Hussein’s air force academy. While University of Maryland has offered courses on military bases for the past 60 years, this is the first time that classes have been offered in the war zone itself.

Currently there are about 300 military personnel taking classes. Most of them are younger than 30 years of age. The classes typically last for 4-6 weeks. The military pays for their tuition and students rent their textbooks for about $20.

According to Professor Fisch, being able to teach Soldiers in Iraq has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of his career. His intentions are to continue to team classes in Iraq for another 6 months before heading back stateside.

“We are educators, we are entertainers and we are a few hours when they don’t have to be on missions. We are a few hours when they can actually be normal college students.”3

This is a fantastic opportunity for our Troops. I’m impressed that the University of Maryland is willing to undertake this very important mission. Not only does attending these classes allow student Soldiers a break from the warzone, but it also can help their careers. College courses often are helpful when a Soldier is putting in his or her packet for promotion. I hope that many more Soldiers take advantage of this awesome opportunity.

  1. http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/01/ap_wartime_classes_012509w/ []
  2. http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/01/ap_wartime_classes_012509w/ []
  3. http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/01/ap_wartime_classes_012509w/ []


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