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Military personnel often have topsy-turvy professional and personal schedules completely different than their civilian counterparts. With long shifts, travel schedules, deployments and varied education needs, traditional college degrees—with their set schedules, class attendance and campus life—are impossible. Yet, military personnel need education to advance in rank, to qualify for certain positions and certifications, to get degrees and more; that’s why online education is so vital.

Air Force Capt. Suzanne Morris holds a Bachelor of Science in nursing and is a dual-certified, medical-surgical and critical-care, registered nurse. She lives in Silver Spring, Md., but is currently deployed as part of a Critical Care Air Transport Team in Afghanistan. She is also enrolled this semester in pharmacology—a required course for her degree as an emergency nurse practitioner—at the University of South Alabama.

Morris chose the online option because her active duty service is a huge time commitment. “In addition to the 40-plus hours of scheduled work a week, we have countless additional requirements and meetings to attend outside our regular duty schedule, so it’s difficult to commit to a set class schedule,” she said. Morris also said she knew the probability of deploying again was very high and she wanted a degree she could continue while stationed in Afghanistan.   

Morris went to Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., for her undergrad degree on an ROTC scholarship. Online programs, she said, require personal responsibility. “When you’re in a traditional program, you have a set schedule and set times when you will be in class. When it’s online, you have to make sure to schedule study time into your day or you’ll get behind,” said Morris, who always has to plan ahead to sit down in front of her books, even when nobody is making sure that she does.

Lt. Michael J. Hunt has 17 years of active      duty service with the U.S. Coast Guard. He is working toward a bachelor’s degree in management through the University of Phoenix. Currently based in Washington, D.C., as a liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Disaster Operations Directorate, he has taken courses in geometry, nutrition, critical thinking, research, communications in business and ethics in business—all online.

“I chose online because I don’t have the time to attend a traditional class,” said Hunt, who commutes four hours a day to be on duty at a specific station during a particular portion of the day as part of his military duties. In a traditional school environment, “I would definitely miss too many classes.”

Class participation is the most difficult thing, said Hunt, about online courses. “In order for online to work, it is required that every class have a team project. Since not all students are as interested in high grades, and you must rely on them for your grade, it can be quite frustrating,” he said. Often, the five-week courses are so short that many students drop out and cause extra work for the rest of the class or team.

Hunt chose University of Phoenix to complete his degree when he was just 10 classes away from a bachelor’s in management. “For me, it has been a good experience by getting me to think more and forcing me to work with nonmilitary people,” said Hunt, who needs the degree to advance in rank and become a better officer and supervisor.

Navy Lt. j.g. Jessica B. Lee is a registered nurse at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. She is taking an introductory to biochemistry course online with the University of California, Berkeley. She said the course is often “recommended” and strengthens applications for candidates of nurse anesthesia programs, which she is working toward.

Like Hunt and Morris, online is a must for Lee; she has a rotating day/night work schedule at Walter Reed and there is a lot of unpredictability in when she will be called in to work, as well.

“There’s no consistency of working days, and this makes it difficult to guarantee attending a class at a campus,” said Lee, who obtained her degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Much of her undergraduate work had the same components of being online, she said, such as the use of a “blackboard” to post readings and materials for classes, as well as to communicate with professors. Lee said online programs are self-paced, but with a deadline; the course she is taking must be completed within six months.

U.S. Navy Nurse Corps officer Capt. Karen Kreutzberg completed her Master of Business Administration online in 2000, when it was relatively innovative to do so. Today, she is executive officer of Operational Health Support Unit in Jacksonville, Fla., supporting the Naval Hospital Jacksonville and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Along with credits she gained at The George Washington University, she completed the MBA program—with eight-week semesters—in a little more than two years through Regis University, based in Denver.

The online option, said Kreutzberg, saved her from having to find parking in downtown Washington, D.C., and besides, she had a nursing baby at the time. “I’m not sure the class would have appreciated me bringing a newborn to the classroom,” she said. “I could not have made captain in the Navy without a graduate degree. The only way you move up in the military is with an advanced degree.”

The difference between her GW and online experience, said Kreutzberg, was that while some of her classmates at GW were working adults, all of the people in her courses at Regis were professionals completing school part time.

Army 1st Sgt. Matthew Davio soured fast on his first attempt to get a college degree. He tried to attend a traditional classroom college when he first got into the Army, but his noncommissioned officer kept giving him assignments every time he had a class. As a result, he had to drop his degree program. Currently with the 16th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment out of Fort Bliss, Texas, Davio is taking online courses to earn his bachelor’s degree through Ashford University, which is based in Iowa.

Davio credits his wife for finding online opportunities and for getting him back on track for a degree. The school offered a political science degree, which Davio is seeking, and all books are digital, saving him money on class materials. “Class discussions are good, and the timing fits better, as I’d never be able to make it to class,” said Davio.

Many schools offer online education courses specifically geared toward the military. Online Military Education, onlinemilitaryeducation.org, is a nongovernment, privately sponsored, military educational and GI Bill resource. Click on “The Top 10 Best Online Colleges for Military and G.I. Bill” to begin.