National Guard May 2011 : Page 38

Degrees of Dif´Čüculty iStockphoto H ANDS F ULL Going to grad school while raising children and serving in the Guard can be difficult, but the rewards can provide a brighter future. 38 | Na tional Guard

Degrees of Difficulty

Andrew Waldman

Family, career and military duties can make going back to college a serious challenge. It can be done and the Guard is a source of help<br /> <br /> CHOOSING AND ATTENDING a graduate school while serving in the National Guard is not an easy task, as Ben and Charleen Shakman can attest.<br /> <br /> The Shakmans, both majors, are fulltime employees of the Illinois Army National Guard and have several children.<br /> <br /> When they went to graduate school for their masters of business administration (MBA) degrees, they did so together, commuting the more than 100 miles from their central Illinois home to a class in Chicago once a week.<br /> <br /> Juggling career, family and school is not easy. But serving your state and nation adds another layer of difficulty. Not only does the Guardsman have to worry about monthly drills, but also overseas deployments, military education requirements and no-notice domestic responses.<br /> <br /> But with careful planning, time management and motivation, it can be done. And the benefits reach beyond military promotions.<br /> <br /> Guardsmen with advanced degrees are becoming increasingly common. In fact, a graduate degree has become more essential because so many people in and out of the Guard hold bachelor's degrees, according to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeff Haycraft, the operations chief for the Army National Guard Education Support Center at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark.<br /> <br /> "Years ago, a high school diploma was enough for someone to get a job. Now we're looking at bachelor's degrees to get a job," he says.<br /> <br /> A bachelor's degree once set apart one Guardsman from another. Now graduate school work makes a person stand out, especially when it comes to military career promotion.<br /> <br /> Many enlisted Guardsmen have bachelor's degrees, and almost all officers hold them. With several exceptions, all officers must have a degree to be commissioned, and all must eventually possess them to continue their careers.<br /> <br /> Master's degrees are now setting people apart from the rest of the pack.<br /> <br /> "These days, if you really want to be considered for major or colonel, you better have a master's degree," Haycraft says.<br /> <br /> And with the difficult and busy lives that officers lead in the Guard, that means a lot of extra work on top of an already heavy workload.<br /> <br /> The first step is finding the right school and the right program, which is often the highest hurdle.<br /> <br /> Finding a grad program is more intensive than choosing an institution for a bachelor's degree, says Maj. Jennifer Settlemyer, the education services officer for the South Carolina Army Guard.<br /> <br /> "It is a highly specialized degree," she says. "A lot of people make decisions based on funding and availability. But you want a program that you are interested in and that is credible."<br /> <br /> Settlemyer says that a student who is passionate about the subject area will be equally passionate about completing the degree and will "find a way to pay for it."<br /> <br /> Guardsmen have multiple possibilities for funding. The Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover the tuition and fees for any degree, while the Guard and Reserve federal tuition assistance program will pay for the tuition required for a master's degree.<br /> <br /> Accreditation of the school and the program is a key factor. Academic institutions are examined and accredited by various organizations, taking into account the institution's course offerings, faculty qualifications and other factors to determine whether or not the school meets rigorous academic standards.<br /> <br /> According to Louis Martini, director of Military and Veteran Education at Trenton, N.J.-based Thomas Edison State College, school accreditation works at several levels. Schools should possess an overall accreditation through a regional accreditation association.<br /> <br /> Students should also determine whether the program that interests them is accredited by professional organizations in the field of study. A business school accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is preferable to one that lacks that accreditation, for example.<br /> <br /> Martini advises potential students to think about how they'll use the degree professionally. Most Guardsmen do not serve full time, so the graduate degree may be more important to their civilian careers. Some, though, are still looking for something to add to their military resume.<br /> <br /> "Look at why you're getting the graduate degree you're getting," he suggests. "If it's strictly for promotion, that's going to be totally different than if it's dual [purpose]. If you're doing it for both reasons, make sure you get something that's applicable to both."<br /> <br /> The Shakmans, for example, got MBAs because they wanted degrees that would give them leadership experience and business acumen for their Guard careers, but also will be useful when they retire from the military.<br /> <br /> "Getting an MBA gives a person a framework for analytical thought," says Ben Shakman.<br /> <br /> That has carried over to his work for the Guard, he says. He looks at everything he does differently now that he's attuned to more analytical thought.<br /> <br /> Organizational management, public policy and leadership are also big fields of study for military members. Many schools now offer accredited programs aimed at federal employees, including service members.<br /> <br /> Potential students also need to consider whether a distance-learning program or a traditional institution best suits their needs. With the proliferation of online universities offering myriad degrees in various subjects, students often are enticed into these schools without proper planning.<br /> <br /> Haycraft, Settlemyer and Martini all cautioned Guardsmen considering graduate school online to think about whether or not they have the right type of personality to be successful.<br /> <br /> "You have to be disciplined because there is nobody that makes you go to class," says Settlemyer. "If you are going to do something online and you don't have immediate access to the professor or other students, you are only accountable to yourself."<br /> <br /> Haycraft says that many schools offer self-evaluation exams that help students determine whether or not they will be a good fit in an online setting.<br /> <br /> Settlemyer, who has a doctorate of education, says she wouldn't have been able to flourish in an online environment.<br /> <br /> "I knew that I was not a disciplined learner, which means that I was not good for online learning," she says.<br /> <br /> Thomas Edison State College, Martini's institution, is a public, online university that serves about 18,000 students, half of them military members. He concurs that students must be of a certain type to make it through an online school.<br /> <br /> "In many cases, it is harder because there isn't that threat of walking into a classroom unprepared," he says.<br /> <br /> However, he says, military members are more likely to have the discipline to complete online degrees than civilian students. Guardsmen are especially adept at this because many have completed correspondence courses to advance their careers.<br /> <br /> Haycraft encourages online students not to bite off more than they can chew.<br /> <br /> "They should never overload themselves. Always take time with classes, because distance learning is reading and writing intensive," he says.<br /> <br /> Students should be careful when applying to online universities. Recently, several for-profit universities have been criticized for their aggressive marketing tactics, which can sometimes push students into low-quality programs and leave them with big loan payments later.<br /> <br /> These online, for-profit universities are not always bad, says Settlemyer. In fact, some students do very well in them. But some schools may be more akin to diploma mills than actual educational institutions.<br /> <br /> Anything that sounds too good to be true, like getting both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in three years, for example, is probably just that.<br /> <br /> "Your graduate level is a high level of education," says Settlemyer. "It shouldn't be something that is done without blood, sweat and tears."<br /> <br /> Some Guardsmen may prefer a program at a traditional, brick-and-mortar school.<br /> <br /> Many large universities offer a diverse array of graduate programs. State institutions often have special offices to help veterans navigate the possibilities.<br /> <br /> In that traditional setting, students often attend school at least one or two days a week. The Shakmans, for example, went to classes at the University of Illinois in Champaign, but also attended the weekly class in Chicago.<br /> <br /> The Shakmans emphasize that communication is key to making the experience smooth and successful. When they first considered graduate school, they explained to their children that their mother and father would be even busier for a while.<br /> <br /> "[Guardsmen] need to have a good sit-down with their significant other, or whoever their support network is, so they understand what the involvement is going to be," suggests Charleen Shakman.<br /> <br /> The Shakmans were successful. Both finished their MBAs at the University of Illinois with high marks.<br /> <br /> Haycraft's office in North Little Rock, Ark., has advisers on hand to help steer students in the right direction. The office can be reached at 1-866-628-5999.<br /> <br /> Many questions are answered on the National Guard's education website at https://education.ng.mil.<br /> <br /> For guidance about state programs, each state has education support officers like Settlemyer who are familiar with local institutions and their state's specific tuition assistance programs. The Shakmans, for instance, were able to find a program available only to Illinois Guardsmen that funded both their tuition and provided a stipend.<br /> <br /> Andrew Waldman can be contacted at (202) 408-5892 or at andrew.waldman@ngaus.org.

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