Just like hundreds of other graduates, Andrea Muresan wore a cap and gown to Friday’s commencement for Georgia Perimeter College.
Unlike the other students, Muresan is stationed in Afghanistan and participated in the ceremony via Skype.
The 22-year-old specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve was two classes shy of earning a diploma when she was deployed in December. Instead of her withdrawing from school or postponing graduation, the college worked with her so she could take her final courses online and finish her associate degree in criminal justice on time.
While Muresan’s case is an extreme example, her solution would have been unlikely a few years ago. The University System of Georgia has spent the past couple of years trying to make campuses more welcoming to the state's growing veteran and military population.
That includes expanding online courses and opening centers to help these students with everything from registering for classes to understanding GI Bill benefits.
Georgia has a strong military connection, with 11 active duty bases, six Air National Guard units and more than 90 National Guard armories, according to a report from the university system. About 10,000 members of the military -- including active duty personnel, reservists and veterans – are enrolled in one of the system's 35 colleges, said Jon Sizemore, interim assistant vice chancellor for distance education.
Colleges are using online courses to reach these students, Sizemore said. The system currently offers more than 5,000 online course sections and about 230 online degree programs.
Chancellor Hank Huckaby appointed a task force to review the system’s online programs, and suggestions on how to improve the offerings are expected this summer. These courses benefit all students, not just military learners and other nontraditional students.
Professor John Siler was teaching Muresan in a criminal justice class this past fall when she learned of her deployment. She had known she would be deployed but expected it to happen in June.
Muresan feared she would fall behind in school and didn't know how she'd earn a degree. Siler suggested she take her last two courses -- anthropology and corrections -- online. They had only two weeks to line everything up, and while Siler said it "was a bureaucratic nightmare for a while" everyone came together to help Muresan.
Finding time for the classes was a challenge, Muresan said. She works 12 hours a day, with no days off, at a mail distribution center in Afghanistan.
"Coming to the room late at night, and falling asleep while reading and forcing myself to stay up all night to study was challenging," Muresan wrote in an email. "But I kept telling myself, a few months and I'll have my diploma. I had pictured my diploma in my mind, and every time I felt like giving up, I just pushed myself a little more."
Georgia Perimeter allows students in Muresan’s situation to either continue while deployed or leave and re-enroll without any penalty, said Mark Eister, director of the school's Military Outreach Center.
About a dozen university system colleges have these centers, which provide a one-stop location for services, including academics, advising and financial aid. The two most common questions students have are how to enroll and how to receive their GI Bill benefits, Eister said.
Concern over those benefits led President Barack Obama to sign an executive order last month at Fort Stewart.
The executive order calls for the term “GI Bill” to be trademarked so it will be easier for the government to find those who deceptively use it to target veterans. It requires colleges who participate in the program to explain how much debt students will acquire to earn their degree and it makes it easier for students who believe they were cheated to file complaints.
While the order will apply to all colleges, analysts said it was aimed at the for-profit sector, where some colleges heavily market military families.
Studies estimate that 70 percent of Georgia veterans use GI Bill benefits. The amount students receive can vary, with some entitled to $4,500 a year in tuition assistance, Eister said.
In response to the expected surge in new students, the university system started the Soldiers 2 Scholars program in 2010 to make colleges more welcoming.
At the same time, more students in general are taking online courses. Enrollment in the classes grew by 21 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2011, according to preliminary reports. Of the nearly 318,000 students enrolled this past fall, more than 50,000 took one or more online courses and 16,000 took all their classes online, early data shows.
Muresan isn't sure whether she'll take more online classes. She's scheduled to return to Georgia in about 75 days. She hopes to earn a bachelor's degree from Georgia State University and become a U.S. marshall. Her dream job is to work for the FBI.
"I know it may seem like I want much out of life," Muresan said. "But, honestly, I always accomplished everything I put my mind to, and I know I will continue accomplishing everything I want out of life."
Distributed by MCT Information Services