CLARION – Marine. Student. Family man. Ask Chris Blaze and Jeff Ward what it’s like to wear all these hats at once, and they’ll tell you it’s all in a days’ work for a U.S. Marine.
“I’ve been on active duty for the past eight years, so my life has been a bit hectic,” says Blaze, who is completing his Associate of Arts in Liberal Studies online through Clarion University’s Virtual Campus. “The military has no set hours; often I’ll get home late, spend some time with my family, then study until midnight or so. The next morning, I might have to get up for training at some ungodly hour. But somehow I get it all done.”
Now a 25-year-old Staff Sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps, Blaze graduated from Mercer Area High School in 2002. Six weeks after graduation, he enlisted in the Marines and never looked back. Blaze’s military assignments have taken him from Kuwait to Korea, Wake Island to Okinawa. From 2004-05, Blaze was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion. Later this year, he is headed to Afghanistan.
“It is possible to do my coursework from anywhere in the world,” he said in a recent phone interview from his station in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., where he lives with his wife Renae and son Clint, age 2. “Although I could work from a combat zone, I have chosen not to do it that way. I will wait and finish the degree when I get back to the U.S and have some more time.”
Ward is a 1999 graduate of Franklin Area High School and a Sergeant with the U.S. Marine Corps. Since enlisting in 2002, he was deployed to Iraq in 2005 along with his unit, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775.
At first, Ward tried traditional, classroom-based coursework at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, where he was stationed in 2005. As a full-time Marine, he soon realized it was nearly impossible to make regular class meetings every week. In 2006, Ward transferred to Clarion’s Virtual Campus, where he successfully completed two online classes each semester before earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Studies last May. Ward is now stationed with the Mobilization Command at Kansas City, Mo., where he works as a manpower analyst and lives with his wife Shari.
Ward says the availability of an online degree program enabled him to complete his coursework from wherever he was stationed. “I really enjoyed the flexibility,” he said in a recent phone interview. “For each class, the assignments were given and deadlines provided, along with the tools and support to complete the tasks. From there, it was up to me to set my own schedule and work around my job while I finished my education.”
In order to be considered for promotion to the level of commissioned officer, Marines must first earn a four-year degree, according to military regulations. Thanks to Ward’s new bachelor’s degree from Clarion, he may pursue a career path as a commissioned officer if he chooses, and he was recently promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
“There were times that I had to pull a 24-hour shift; I would be exhausted afterward,” Ward said. “But the Marine Corps provides an excellent support structure for personal and professional development, which has really helped.”
Like Ward, Blaze began his degree work at a larger university. By the end of the first semester, Blaze said he began to find the coursework too abstract, and geared more toward traditional students rather than working adults. After struggling through a few more courses and paying many tuition dollars, Blaze decided it wasn’t for him. “Actually, it was more of a pain in the butt than an education,” he said with a laugh. “So my Web search brought me to Clarion. The degree offerings and low tuition cost were really appealing. Through the military’s tuition assistance program and new post-9/11 benefits, I was able to get almost all of my costs covered.”
Once enrolled at Clarion, Blaze says he found the coursework to be more specific and practical than at his previous university. “Clarion courses are more doable for someone like me, but they still challenge you,’ he said. “The classes ran smoother, too. When I had to e-mail instructors to let them know an assignment would be late, they would always understand. In another instance, I had to ask a professor to grade my assignments more quickly because I needed more immediate feedback. She changed it right away for me.”
Ward said his experiences with the faculty at Clarion were equally positive. “I definitely felt comfortable and confident with the professors and the Blackboard (Web) environment,” he noted. “I felt like there was a mutual commitment between me and the professors to help me succeed. Even though I was in Kansas City and they were in Clarion, the professors were always responsive and available to me at all time.”
In addition to a strong faculty, a dedicated university staff is critical to a military student’s success. Navigating the admissions, financial aid and registration can be daunting. Blaze said that Lynne Fleisher, Clarion’s Associate Director of Extended Studies and Distance Education, made all the difference for him. “Lynne has been such a big help; she is so understanding, and has gone above and beyond her normal job duties to help me,” he noted. “Things like scheduling classes over the phone and calling my instructors for me. It really made me feel like a part of the institution. In this day and age, not many people seem to care much about the military, but thanks to Lynne, Clarion has been completely different.”
Fleisher believes this personal touch is key in working with new military students. “We try to guide them carefully through the whole university process – getting acclimated to campus life and to online learning. If a solider has been on active duty and deployed somewhere else across the globe and then comes to our university, they need to feel that sense of community – someone to bring them back into the fold. I think we do a pretty nice job of that here at Clarion.”
According to Fleisher, many of Clarion’s military students are current or former Pennsylvania residents who choose Clarion based on its familiarity, academic reputation and numerous accreditations.
“At Clarion and in all of the 14 state system schools, it’s our job to make higher education as accessible as possible to all military members in Pennsylvania and beyond,” she added. “One of the ways we can most effectively reach out to them is through our online programs on the Virtual Campus.”
Once Blaze finishes his associate degree next year, there’s plenty of learning left to pursue in the military. As a Technical Engineer, Blaze has worked on road design and construction, construction planning, airfield engineering, runway repair, and other projects around the world. Later this year, he will be going to dog handler school, where he will learn to train dogs to sniff for explosives.
Blaze advised fellow military members considering a college degree to be prepared for an instructional style that is different from the military. “In the military, topics stay within the military realm but in college, subjects studied are very broad. You have to figure a lot more out on your own,” he said. “It can be hard to know where to start. In the daytime, I’ll be studying military engineering and explosives, and then at night, I’ll be reading a novel.”
Armed with a Clarion University bachelor’s degree and confidence in his abilities as an online student, Ward is now pursuing an online Master of Arts degree in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. He plans to finish in Spring 2011. “The motivation and sense of fulfillment that I got while completing my degree at Clarion was key in my decision to keep pushing forward,” he noted.
Ward advised potential military students that success in online degree work boils down to personal dedication. “You have to feel that mutual commitment between you and the university,” he added. “At Clarion, that strong support – whether it’s the staff, the professors or the Blackboard system – is all there for you. You just have to make the choice and go for it.”
Clarion University Programs
Clarion University’s online programs enable students to earn a two-year associate degree, a four-year bachelor’s degree, a graduate degree or an advanced certificate online while working full-time, without having to come to the Clarion campus. Online study can be an ideal choice for military members, as well as people who are unable to travel to campus due to distance, job commitments or family responsibilities.
Financial aid is available. Clarion University is approved for the G.I. Bill, and offers competitive tuition rates to active-duty military personnel. Study options include:
Undergraduate Degree Programs
·Associate of Arts
·Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies
·Associate of Science in Early Childhood
·Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree Completion
·Radiologic Sciences and Sonography Prerequisite Programs
·Master of Science in Business Administration
·Master of Science in Library Science
·Master of Science in Mass Media Arts and Journalism
·Master of Science in Rehabilitative Sciences
·CPA Exam Eligibility Program
·Graduate Secondary Teacher Certification
·Early Childhood Directors Credential
·Instructional Technology Specialist Program
“Clarion University delivers online educational programs that are convenient and flexible, and which are held to the same quality standards as traditional on campus instruction,” said Dr. Art Acton, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs. “These programs all meet or exceed the rigorous requirements for regional and national accreditation.”