Power of the Internet lets local soldiers finish their degrees, even when deployed half a world away

GENESEE COUNTY — The Internet connection can be fickle, outside is a war zone and Army Spc. Jeremy Glasstetter has been up since 6 a.m. in Baghdad.

But after a day of work, seven hours ahead of his classmates and more than 6,000 miles away, Glasstetter comes back to his bedroom, opens his laptop and becomes a college student.

Sometimes into the wee hours, the Davison native blends into the University of Michigan-Flint campus from Iraq by joining discussion boards, studying and writing papers for three classes -- earning his way onto the dean's list."The Army really instills time management during basic training, so it's not that hard," the 1993 Davison High School graduate, 33, said jokingly in an interview with The Flint Journal by phone and e-mail from Baghdad.

Many service personnel aren't waiting until they're out of the military to enroll in college, no matter where they're deployed. Some are using local online degree programs to finish school while they work, even those deployed as far as the Middle East.

But it takes strict discipline and motivation to keep up with online courses, Glasstetter said.

"Combine that with the rigors of being on active duty in the U.S. Army, add in the stress of a combat zone, and you have a uniquely wild situation," said Glasstetter, who also has been deployed to Afghanistan and who is working toward a business degree.

"As mortars fall on your position, you race to maintain deadlines and complete papers and assignments, not a common occurrence to the everyday student.

"In my opinion, I appreciate my education more because of the situations and scenarios in which I worked to obtain it. Where else can you, by day, help to build a school or have your vehicle struck by an IED (improvised explosive device) and by night, complete and submit your English paper?"

Most colleges don't specifically track the number of online students who are on active duty but officials say an increase in online degree offerings and enhanced Internet capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq are helping create a new student demographic.

Higher education institutions also are tweaking accommodations for students in such drastically different time zones and who are constantly on the move without steadily reliable Internet access.

UM-Flint philosophy professor Nathan Oaklander, who has Glasstetter in one of his classes, said usually he offers online chat sessions in the evening.

But because evening here is in the middle of the night in Iraq, he also offers morning sessions. And only once does he remember waiving a late penalty on an assignment by Glasstetter after the soldier had Internet difficulties.

He said Oaklander's experiences in war have also meant unique perspectives for class discussions, including one about the philosophical problem of personal identity.

"Jeremy expressed how prior to being in combat he didn't understand what war was," Oaklander said in an e-mail. "After serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and experiencing horrific and heroic events, he related how it has affected his personal identity.

"In this way and others he oftentimes brings his life experiences in Iraq to the topics (of class)."

At UM-Flint, at least 110 students are collecting veteran's benefits, which could include people in the military or their families, both on campus and online.

Military people or their families make up 10 percent to 15 percent of Flint-based Baker Online College's online student population of roughly 4,700.

Baker Online also has partnered with eArmyU, launched in 2001 and that allows servicemen and women to take online classes through more than one college towards a degree.

"Online is obviously growing for everyone but the main reason for the military is because they can be deployed and still are able to attend their classes," said Chuck Gurden, vice president of Baker's graduate and online admissions.

He said several Baker Online students are in Afghanistan and Iraq and many others are from such states as California and North Carolina where there are big military bases.

Many online military students such as Glasstetter plan to return to a traditional college campus when they come home.

Some reports by veteran's groups indicate that only a small percentage of veterans actually finish four-year programs because of financial gaps, sudden deployments, and a lack of resources when they return to a college setting.

UM-Ann Arbor student and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Derek Blumke is president of Student Veterans of America, a group he co-founded four months ago and that lobbies for improved resources.

"You're a combat veteran trying to fit in on a campus with students who are 18 or 19 years old," said Blumke, 27. "It's a difficult transition and there are no resources."

But Blumke, who has been deployed in the middle of a semester, said the growing online education world opens up new opportunities for military personnel.

Glasstetter is a prime example.

After an emotionally difficult deployment to Afghanistan, Glasstetter said he knew the Army would not be a career choice and has big plans for civilian life.

"Receiving a college degree is extremely important to me," he said. "I joined the Army to better my world and country. Earning a college degree, I feel that I am contributing towards the greatness of my world and country in a whole new way."

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