Through eArmyU, the Army's online education program for soldiers, some 55,000 soldiers stationed in the Middle East are able to further their educations. Soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq didn't have that option, however, as the area -- known for its roadside bombings and other attacks -- was deemed too dangerous for the non-combat personnel who make eArmyU work on the ground. But now class is in session for about 100 Army National Guardsmen stationed at Forward Operating Base Speicher, in Tikrit.
In a program unique for its in-person instruction for the military in Iraq, Sullivan County Community College is offering eight for-credit courses to troops stationed at Speicher.
This past winter, Mike Moritz, 52, a member of the New Jersey National Guard who in his civilian life teaches at Sullivan, began talking with the college, which is part of the State University of New York, about offering classes at his base in Iraq. "Many soldiers had to leave school," said Judy Eurich, a Sullivan spokeswoman. "He felt this would be a really good way for them to get a break from the everyday war."
Moritz recruited five other soldiers to round out the faculty. Each of the professors has a master’s degree and was vetted by Sullivan County.
In April, with few supplies and no textbooks, Moritz opened the doors at Sullivan County Community College at Tikrit, offering classes in basic algebra and calculus; principles of marketing and management; American government; drug use and abuse; U.S. history; introductory sociology; and small business management and operations.
Sullivan County educators suggest course content and review course plans to make sure the students are taking courses that will have transferable credit and grades when they return. “They're actually going to school there,” Eurich said.
A rotating class schedule, with some course sessions offered more than once, helps students who miss class for missions, perhaps a better excuse than the old dog-ate-homework bit. Still, there are unavoidable inconveniences. “We don't have textbooks so we have to write everything down or we may miss something that may be testable,” wrote Sgt. Anne Cruz, who is taking U.S. History and Sociology 100, in one of several letters about the program provided by the college. “For me, studying in the field is a study guide put together with the notes from class (nothing more then a few sheets of paper folded up in my cargo pocket) and when I get a chance I will take it out and look it over,” she added. “Everything about the class is improvised. It is like college McGyver.”
The troops, who themselves are surprised at the opportunity, are appreciative. “When I came here I never expected to get the chance to knock a few credits out while I was fighting a war,” wrote Sgt. Patrick Garland, 26, of Clarence Center, New York. “I am so grateful that this chance has been provided for me.” He gets a kick out of this version of study abroad. “As for taking classes in a war zone ... hard to even begin to explain what it is like spending all day outside the wire on the roads here, then coming back to FOB Speicher, grabbing my books and coffee cup, and running off to class.”
Some of the soldier-students will be able to use the credits to keep up with degrees they are pursuing back home. Specialist Tola Maria, 19, is working on the business degree she was pursuing at Middlesex County College, in New Jersey. "I felt so happy, that it almost felt like it was my first day of high school,” she wrote of the start of classes at Speicher. “I believe all we need is some desks, some books, as of right now we only have chairs. We can also use some school supplies. Just the basics, pens, notebooks."
So far, professors in the program acknowledge that it would be nice to have more teaching materials, but they say the benefits of the courses are already apparent. “Time away from work is spent in a productive manner,” wrote Capt. Cassandra Forrester, newly appointed professor of algebra. Forrester has 18 students, 12 men and 6 women, ranging in age from 19 to 40. “[The students] meet new people and get to take their minds off the 'war on terrorism' for two and a half hours.” Forrester said she is also reaping personal rewards. “It leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and tangible purpose, you know on a large scale that you are part of some large purpose, but to see your efforts in this environment bring about something positive like a step towards higher education is awesome.”
The class-break from the war also offers students a departure from the usual rigid etiquette. In some classes, students outrank their instructors. “It’s really nice to be able to sit in a class where the structure changes from a military atmosphere to a student-teacher atmosphere,” wrote Garland. “The military can sometimes be a very frustrating thing, you do not always get to hear reasons or an outcome to some of the work you are asked to do immediately (or even at all), it is nice to have something here that allows us to work towards our own futures also!”
Garland has taken online courses before, but likes in-person teaching better. Not only does he find it much more accommodating to the stresses of battle, but he got a huge kick out of seeing a “Staff Sergeant trying to explain to [a lower ranking] Specialist why he didn’t have all of his homework completed.”
Lieut. Col. Aimee Klimowitz is the acting dean of the program. Back in March, she did not know if the program would get off the ground as she registered students and handled tuition -- $45 per credit hour. Now, though, she has noticed that her program is starting to take on some aspects of other colleges. When one specialist who helps Klimowitz with administrative duties “saw all the babes on the FOB come out of the woodwork for these classes,” according to Klimowitz, “all the sudden his 'additional duty’ helping me became a priority … by God if I didn't start smelling cologne on him. Yes, hope lives on, even here in the heart of the Sunni Triangle on a FOB with 7,000 men.”