Servicemembers and civilians take a test in Moriaki Kanai’s Elementary Japanese class at the University of Maryland College at Yokota Air Base, Japan, September of 2006.

Servicemembers and civilians take a test in Moriaki Kanai’s Elementary Japanese class at the University of Maryland College at Yokota Air Base, Japan, September of 2006. (Christopher B. Stoltz / S&S)

Where the military goes in the Pacific, so does the University of Maryland University College.

It’s been that way since the first UMUC courses in Asia began in September 1956 in Japan, South Korea and Okinawa, three years after the Korean truce and four years after the end of the military occupation in Japan.

This year the university is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the Pacific with numerous events and lectures geared to do what it has done since the first year: educate and enlighten servicemembers during peacetime and war.

“We’ve gone everywhere the U.S. military has asked us to go during that time,” said Dr. Joe Arden, director of UMUC’s Asian Division who joined the program in 1967 as a faculty member and also has served stints on the university’s staff in Europe. “The significance of our 50 years shows we’re not going to be here one day, gone the next.”

The university’s inaugural commencement — with two graduates — took place in Tokyo in the spring of 1957.

Fifty years later, enrollment has ballooned to about 20,000, with hundreds of students working toward UMUC certificates, and associate and bachelor’s degrees.

During UMUC Asia’s first academic year, the program expanded to Guam and Taiwan. It later reached Australia, China, Diego Garcia, Hong Kong, Laos, the Marshall Islands, Malaysia, Midway Island, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Administrators say the division’s most challenging period may have been from 1963 to 1975 in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Meeting in Quonset huts, tents or in the open, classes often were interrupted by alerts or enemy attacks. Faculty members encountered combat operations while commuting by bus and sometimes worked in trenches by flashlight, grading student work written on used envelopes when other paper was unavailable.

A number of students did not make it home and some degrees were awarded posthumously.

Retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1982-85, arguably is the school’s most famous graduate, Arden said. Vessey first took classes in the late 1950s, as a major with the 8th Army in Korea. He graduated from UMUC while in Washington on a Pentagon assignment.

Arden said others have gone on to distinguished careers in business, law, education and the military.

Until the mid-1980s, the military mostly went after highly flexible degrees that required only minimal set coursework.

“That has significantly changed in the last 20 years, in that the military and military students … have wanted degree programs that … leave them better qualified for jobs in the civilian marketplace,” he said.

U.S. servicemembers have received 100 percent tuition assistance up to $250 per semester-hour since the start of the new millennium. But Arden says military students and families often don’t take full advantage of their opportunities.

“Many times, students overseas don’t recognize what a great deal they have,” he said.

UMUC depends on modern information technology for much of its current activity. Students may enroll in hundreds of different online courses in addition to those offered in traditional classroom format.

But one asset hasn’t changed at UMUC Asia over the decades, Arden said.

“We’ve been fortunate from the very first years to have extremely qualified, very dedicated, fine classroom teachers,” he said. “We’ve never had any doubt about what the single greatest strength of the program has been.”

Anniversary eventsUniversity of Maryland University College in Asia is marking its 50th anniversary with various observances throughout the 2006-07 academic year. Among upcoming events:

¶ Lecture series: “The Definition of Success: Carlos Ghosn,” 5 p.m. Friday at the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo. Ghosn is the CEO of Nissan and Renault. Giving the special lecture will be Miguel Rivas-Micoud, author of “The Ghosn Factor.” Free and open to the public.

¶ Combined poetry reading and art presentation by Mong-Lan Pham, 1 p.m. Saturday at the New Sanno Hotel. Free and open to the public.

¶ “Emerging Business in China” lecture by Yuji Suzuki, who has extensive international business experience including extended periods of time in China, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the New Sanno Hotel. Free and open to the public.

¶ Alumni dinner dance, 5 p.m. Saturday, New Sanno Hotel Empire Room.

¶ “Maryland Presents” Readers Theater — 50th Anniversary in South Korea, tentatively set for October. Location information was not available.

¶ Joint “Maryland and Misawa-shi Presents” performing art concert, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 18 at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

¶ Art exhibit “Landscapes: A View From Maryland,” Feb. 3 in Yokohama, Japan.

¶ Special commencement and gala ball, tentatively set for April in Tokyo.

UMUC Asia will post updated event information on its Web site at edu. Call DSN 225-3680 for information.

— Vince Little

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