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Education opportunities in golden age at MacDill

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Photo by Nick Stubbs

Staff Sgt. Anthony Lourent gets some advice from Coyt Hargus, a guidance counselor with the Education and Training Flight. Getting students on track and keeping them there is a top priority.

While some may not realize it, MacDill is making major advances in its quest to become a world-class center of military education opportunities. The goal is a little closer now that the base has a new, fully-equipped, multi-purpose laboratory and a satellite-equipped classroom that will receive the first-ever off-duty education course. Both will be put to use this fall as MacDill closes in on its goal of becoming a beacon of education opportunities.

The new lab will be utilized by Hillsborough Community College for the first anatomy and physiology course held on base. The satellite system will receive the first remote learning broadcast into MacDill for off-duty education - a Vietnam history course taught by a retired Marine general.

The two new educational opportunities are "exciting and open a lot of opportunities up" said Maryruth Hicks, chief of education and training at MacDill, and will likely further stimulate the already surging interest in education opportunities here.

While she laments that some MacDill servicemembers don't seem to be aware of the offerings and opportunities, many have recognized they are smack in the middle of the golden age of Air Force education opportunity.

Air Force base/ college campus

MacDill enjoys perhaps the greatest number of education options of any Air Mobility Command base due to 89 certified or accredited schools and tech centers within 50 miles of the base, said Ms. Hicks. That combined with the move in 2002 to push tuition assistance from 75 to 100 percent has led to all-time enrollment highs, she said.

"We have seen a big jump (since tuition coverage went to full) and a lot more interest the last couple of years," said Ms. Hicks. "Enrollments have about doubled from 1,000 or so to about 1,800."

MacDill has four colleges on base: Embry Riddle Aeronautical Institute, campuses of Hillsborough Community College, Saint Leo College and Troy State University. Embry Riddle and Troy State offer graduate programs. Saint Leo offers undergraduate studies and HCC offers one-year certificates and two-year degrees. Fred D. Learey Technical School, also on base, provides various tech certifications.

With high-profile courses like anatomy, and now the ability to sit in on private and public education satellite courses, she suspects interest will surge even more. And with work under way now to bring an MBA program to the base, perhaps by fall 2005, the future looks even brighter, Ms. Hicks predicts.

What if I'm deploying?

Among the additions is a new program in which those being deployed to Germany can take their driving course at MacDill. Upon arrival in Germany, the certificate allows for quick processing and servicemembers can be issued their license very quickly. The course taken in the education building (base library building) on computer, is part of a trend to go "paperless," said Ms. Hicks, who added that by the fall, all paper courses and testing are expected to be phased out.

Computers also are providing a previously unattainable level of flexibility in education, allowing even the deployed to continue studying. Many servicemembers in Iraq and other overseas locations are logging on and working toward their degrees, a process MacDill's education experts help facilitate by ensuring students work only with accredited distance learning schools.

Staff Sergeant Mark Holcomb, an airborne communications systems operator with the 310th Air Lift Squadron, says the time has never been better for Airmen seeking a degree. He completed two Associate degrees this year and will have his Bachelor's by December. From there he will work toward a Master's, in technical management at Embry Riddle.

"I've seen the funding (for education) go up from 75 to 100 percent and all you have to do is sign your name to take advantage of it," said Sergeant Holcomb.

He notes that the deal for Airmen is unbeatable but the Air Force gets a lot in return.

"In the Air Force they encourage you to aim high and this program gives you the opportunity to rise up," said Sergeant Holcomb. "You are investing in your future but also investing in the Air Force and if you are willing to press on with it (the school work) the Air Force is there to support you."

It's not just young people

Among the other trends in education within the military is an increase in the number of older students. With a new program which provides full tuition for technical or vocational certification, even officers as high as colonel with master's degrees under their belts take advantage of the opportunities.

"It's not just the young people getting an education now," said Ms. Hicks. "Everyone is joining in and taking advantage of what's being offered."

Another trend is for state education head hunters to scout the Air Force for teachers. Each quarter the state visits the base seeking teacher candidates. "They (the state) want military teachers because they like their leadership ability," said Ms. Hicks.

For those in the Air Force "there just hasn't been a better time than now when it comes to getting an education," said Ms. Hicks. "Financially and from the aspect of convenience it doesn't get much easier."




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