National Guard troops in Bosnia earn college credit online

Posted: December 10, 2003

Contact: Doug Anderson, doug.anderson@so.mnscu.edu, 651-201-1426

Hibbing Community College student Aaron Hommerding's home this fall has switched from Babbitt to Bosnia - and so has his campus.

While deployed on a peacekeeping mission, Hommerding is attending college online in a unique collaboration between the 34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota Army National Guard and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Hommerding is taking environmental literature from Hibbing Community College and comparative religion from Lake Superior College.

"I'm planning on continuing school for my bachelor's degree, and these classes will both help me meet my general education needs," said Hommerding, who had taken three semesters in the law enforcement program at Hibbing Community College after his 2001 graduation from high school in Babbitt.

"Our base is small, with about 120 people, but we have a nice computer lab with eight computers that are only used for educational purposes," he said in a recent e-mail message.

"I feel that the state has done a terrific job in accommodating classes to fit our needs," he said. "We were able to start late, due to our training and late arrival in Bosnia. They also made it easy to take classes from different schools with no hassle on my part. I'm glad that I am able to continue working toward my educational goals."

Hommerding is among 1,100 Minnesota National Guard soldiers deployed late this summer through next April. Most are in Bosnia, and 278 are serving in Italy, Belgium and Turkey.

Faculty members say they have been adapting to the different situations they encounter.

"I have had to change my whole approach to teaching," said Jess Koski, the environmental literature instructor at Hibbing. "I can't take for granted that the environment is anything the same as Minnesota's."

For example, Koski gives his students 20 questions everyone should know, such as where garbage goes and where drinking water comes from.

"One of my students answered, 'I know that my drinking water comes from a bottle from Italy,' " Koski said. "You can't expect them to know a lot about the environment over there."

For the National Guard students, the military will cover the full cost of tuition for soldiers sent overseas or 80 percent for soldiers in Minnesota. Reimbursement for books is available.

"More than half of the Guard members already are enrolled in college, so this will allow them to continue their education without interruption," said Minnesota Adjutant General Larry Shellito, who also was president of Alexandria Technical College until Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him to lead the state's National Guard effective Nov. 3.

About 390 soldiers had registered for classes during their July training sessions at Camp Ripley, although some have dropped classes after having difficulties getting textbooks in time, gaining computer access and dealing with unexpectedly demanding work schedules. Program coordinators say they are working to solve the startup problems and ensure that the second semester begins smoothly.

About 850 Minnesota National Guard troops will be deployed to Kosovo early next year and will be able to take online courses. So far, 175 have signed up, according to Linda Lade, a program collaboration and transfer specialist in the Office of the Chancellor.

Daniel Gazelka participates in an introduction to criminal justice class through Metropolitan State University from a small fort in southeast Bosnia that has three computers for education use.

"Online studies are going great," Gazelka wrote recently via e-mail. "I have noticed there is a lot more work in online courses vs. regular college classes. We are coming up on mid-terms and I am in a furious bustle getting last-minute studying and quizzes done."

Gazelka, whose home is Bemidji, said he had taken courses for one semester at Vermilion Community College and then married and took some time off from college.

"I am very grateful for the opportunity to continue my education," Gazelka said. He plans to finish his law enforcement education at Hibbing Community College and Bemidji State University.

Cpl. Andrew Cumings is taking astronomy at Bemidji State University and ethics from Lake Superior College. An intelligence analyst in the National Guard, he grew up in Moorhead and now makes Duluth his home.

"Both professors have been fantastic in working with the students overseas," he said.

"For example, it is very hard to observe the night sky when you are stationed at a secure forward base with bright lights all over. My astronomy professor inquired of our situations at the various bases and presented an alternative assignment. I've been very impressed with the online classes."

John Truedson of Bemidji State University is teaching the astronomy classes, plus meteorology and physical science for the National Guard online program, and he says most of the students have done well so far.

"You have to be flexible, though," Truedson said. When his astronomy students suggested that they could observe the night sky while out on patrol, he thought they should not try because it would be too dangerous. He offered a term paper alternative.

Cumings said the online courses will help keep him in a frame of mind to finish his degree. He is majoring in art history and French studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and just finished studying for a year at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain when he was activated.

"It has been a great opportunity that I am very glad I took advantage of," Cumings said. "I have some time when I am off shift, so I might as well be doing something constructive."

Institutions participating in Guard Online:
Bemidji State University
Metropolitan State University
Alexandria Technical College
Anoka-Ramsey Community College
Century College
Hibbing Community College
Inver Hills Community College
Lake Superior College
Minnesota West Community & Technical College
Rochester Community and Technical College
South Central College