World Teachers Day: A UMGC Classroom Can Be Anywhere

John Barbato has an uncommon claim to fame: He has taught for University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) on three continents.

“I’ve been all over Europe, the Middle East and South America for a year when UMGC had a program in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the early 1990s,” he said. “I’ve also had the privilege of being deployed to many remote sites like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Bahrain. The list is long.”

Barbato is one of approximately 565 UMGC overseas faculty members for whom a classroom may be any place in the world. These educators usually teach in education centers on military bases—except when COVID-19 drove them to online education platforms—but they also have moments where a class might unfold in a tent, in a building stairwell, in a bunker.

They are drawn to the experience because of their links to the military, by their interest in nontraditional students, by their love of travel or, sometimes, by all three.

On Oct. 5, World Teachers’ Day, the experiences of these UMGC teachers especially resonate.

UMGC Psychology Professor Mindy Otis said teaching in a global classroom has been her best job. She enjoys her students and she gets to indulge her lifelong love of travel. Before joining UMGC as a full-time faculty member, she had multiple positions in the education field, including as a special education administrator and a school principal.

“I was living in Connecticut and I didn’t like the job I had. It was very stressful. I was looking for a change,” she said. She spotted a UMGC advertisement for overseas teachers and applied.

That was seven years ago, and she hasn’t looked back.

For Renaldo Walker, teaching at UMGC has an intensely personal significance. Walker is both a former servicemember and a former UMGC student. Deployed to Germany to support Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, he began studying German through the university. Today he is a full-time faculty member teaching graduate and undergraduate business, human resources and project management classes in Germany.

“The experience of being away from the United States and still having the possibility to pursue a valuable education with a respectable institution was influential in paving the way to where I am now,” Walker said. “I always valued what it meant to me as a member of the military to be academically supported away from home.”

Walker, even while teaching, continues his own education at UMGC. He is pursuing a doctorate in business administration.

Walker noted the irony of his current career, given that he was interested in sports—not education—when he was young. He described himself as an “at times below average” student when he joined the Air Force in 1987.

Several years into his military service, he felt “it would be an honor to travel abroad and pay service to our military members, Department of Defense employees and contractors, and their families in their pursuit of academic accomplishment.”

Gretchen Koenig, meanwhile, had always wanted to teach outside the United States. A professor of English, speech and writing since 2016, she said her position with UMGC in Europe “was a perfect fit.”

The theme for World Teachers’ Day in 2021 is “teachers at the heart of education recovery.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most stateside UMGC classes were already online or hybrid, which is a combination of online and in-classroom. At military education centers overseas, however, in-person classes were the norm.

The pandemic was a game changer. Walker described it as “the biggest challenge that I have experienced” in teaching.

John Nolan, a UMGC professor of history, leads field study courses in which students do online work and reading then meet for guided travel marked by lectures, museum visits, meetings with local experts and other on-the-ground experiences. Nolan was in London with a field study group when he got word that countries were locking down because of the novel coronavirus. His students managed to finish their trip, but a field study program in Spain was derailed mid-week.

Despite needing to shift gears for COVID-19, Nolan said he enjoyed the challenges that came with teaching online. “Though the classes have been small, the students have responded well and produced some of the best work I have seen from undergraduates so that, too, is rewarding,” he said.

Otis, meanwhile, was teaching in Korea when the global lockdowns started. “I’ve been in quarantine four-and-a-half times,” she said, “but being in Germany or Korea, compared with the United States, was much more restrictive. We were shut down and the only thing you could do was go to the grocery store or pharmacy or pick up takeout.”

She said the isolation of lockdown was hard, and her students in Italy and Germany seemed to arrive at the Zoom classes seeking both academic and social engagement.

“My students would stay online after class and we would all chat. It was our social exposure,” she explained.

Indeed, the interaction with students—and the opportunity to unleash their potential—is one of the things that drives Walker passion for teaching. He recalled the time when an MBA student was in touch to say a job would prevent her from attending the first cohort weekend in his class. Shortly afterward, Walker learned that the student was taking steps to drop the course.

“A program coordinator … was instrumental in advising her that she should first speak with me before doing anything further. She agreed, we eventually spoke and during our telephone conversation, she began to cry and explain to me that the office where she worked was understaffed so she was working most weekends, and that she was trying her hardest to establish work-life balance while also being a wife and mother of three,” Walker said.

The student was ashamed that she wasn’t keeping pace with the rest of her cohort.

“I went on to make a deal with her that she should suspend all efforts to catch up on her classwork until she had the opportunity to meet with her cohort. If she still felt ashamed after that point, then I would fully respect her wishes to withdraw from the course,” Walker said.

She went to class, met the other students and explained her situation.

“Needless to say, she fell in love with the cohort, caught up with her classwork, confronted her [work] manager about the importance of her pursuing her education and became one of the best students that I ever had,” Walker said. The woman completed her MBA, becoming the first woman in her family with a graduate degree.

Otis, too, finds it gratifying to see her students achieve.

“My students are the best part of the job. They never cease to amaze me,” she said. “Some of them come out of less-than-stellar K-12 education and they think they aren’t college material, that they can’t learn. Then they come to UMGC and realize, ‘Hey, I can do this!’”

Koenig noted that teaching servicemembers overseas often feels exactly like teaching students stateside—and then she is reminded of “the different stressors that our students have to content with.

“Many of these students are away from home for the first time, living in a foreign country, and many are facing deployments or training to additional countries. They are trying to maintain a stable life at home while everything around them is different,” she explained. “That potential loss of equilibrium can make classes more challenging.

“The actual classes and classroom interactions aren’t different, but the concerns or distractions weighing on our student’s minds certainly are,” she added.

Barbato said it’s not only the unexpected experience of teaching against a backdrop of different countries, cultures and challenges but, sometimes, the unusual form the classrooms themselves take.

On the first night of a teaching assignment in Kandahar, Afghanistan, his class was interrupted by sirens signaling a rocket attack. He was instructed to crawl under a table in the classroom until the group moved to a bunker.

“Once in the bunker, which was pitch black, I asked, “Can I still talk?’” Barbato recalled. “I was told I could, so I continued on with the class as I would have anywhere, going over the syllabus, the assignments, forming groups and talking about human resource management.

“We had been in the bunker for almost two hours when a student said, ‘Professor, it’s nine o’clock,’ pointing to his watch. The class was scheduled to go from 6 to 9 p.m.

“I said, ‘Do you have somewhere to go?’ We all laughed a bit and then we kept discussing human resource management until we were given the all-clear sign,” he said.

Not surprisingly, many of the UMGC faculty overseas love being on the road, and they take advantage of the opportunity to travel when they can.

Otis is an old hat at off-the-beaten-track experiences. On one trip she visited an amusement park in the bottom of a salt mine in Turda, Romania. On another, she tried out a multi-level trampoline in a coal mine in northern Wales. A 5,000-miles road trip took her through several countries.

“Before I came to UMGC, I was a normal suburban soccer mom. I went to work, I came home, I did potluck,” she said. “I love the life I have now. Next weekend I’m going hiking by myself in the Canary Islands.”

In Nolan’s 23 years with UMGC, he has taught in nine locations in Germany, six in the UK, four in Italy, three in Belgium and two in Bosnia. He has also had multiple postings in Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Diego Garcia. His field study courses, notably in Ireland and France, give him an extra opportunity to travel when he’s not at his home, a small farm in rural

Cornwall where, as he puts it, “I wear bib overalls a lot.”

For all his postings with UMGC, Barbato’s link to the university came through his father who retired from the military, served as dean of the European operations of a U.S. college that no longer exists and then taught at UMGC for 17 years.

Just out of college and ready to begin a job as an investment banker in New York, Barbato found his father trying to lure him back to Europe, where Barbato had attended school on military bases.

“My father had financed my studies in the form of a loan. He told me, that if I came over to Europe and taught with him for one year, he would erase the loan,” Barbato said. “That one year turned into 32 years and going.”

Barbato teaches business courses, including management and marketing. He is assigned to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, the same base where his father served. At the Commencement ceremony marking the last year his father taught, the father and son—both UMGC faculty members—walked across the stage together.

Education, Experiences through the Lens of Hispanic Americans

Higher education can be a complex experience for Hispanic American students who do not have friends and families to help them navigate enrollment, financial aid or the time-management challenges of taking classes, often while also working.

That’s why universities, including University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), need to be intentional about providing services and programs that support first-generation students, according to panelists at The Road to Higher Ed for Latinx Women, an online forum sponsored by the university in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. 

The Sept. 17 discussion was among the events unfolding at UMGC in the United States and at its overseas locations during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. The goal of the month is to recognize the contributions of Hispanic Americans—past and present—in shaping the United States. 

An estimated 60 million Hispanic Americans live in the United States.

Nationwide, Latin American food tastings, author readings, film festivals and theater and music events  remained among the mainstays in celebrating the month. UMGC was involved in cultural activities, but it also brought thoughtful discussion into the mix.

“Universities need to consciously work to attract and retain Latinx students in higher education,” said Gloria Aparicio Blackwell, director of community engagement at University of Maryland College Park and a panelist at the event sponsored by the UMGC Diversity and Equity Office. “We need to think outside of the box.

“We are full of talent and we are looking for opportunities,” added Aparicio Blackwell, who grew up in Venezuela.  

The higher education panel also included Annie Foster Ahmed, the director of the Macklin Center for Academic Success at The Universities at Shady Grove in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and New Futures DC Program Director Griselda Macias. Natasha Rodriguez, director of multicultural training and diversity programs in the UMGC Diversity and Equity Office, served as moderator.

The speakers were unanimous in calling for more guidance, resources and financial aid so that educational pathways held fewer obstacles for traditionally disadvantaged students. They also said higher education institutions need more Latinx administrators, faculty and staff in visible positions.

“We have to recognize that we have students experiencing racism and … struggling with identity if they don’t find [an academic] community that is open and understanding and that values and welcomes their identity,” said Foster Ahmed, who is Afro-Latina.

Foster Ahmed talked about the culture shock she experienced at college. She also noted the excitement of being able to take courses in Latin American history and Black history.

Ten days after the panel presentation, on the other side of the world, another UMGC-sponsored event unfolded on an Air Force base in southwest Asia. That round table discussion, A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Serving our Nation, included servicemembers detailing what it means to be a Hispanic American member of the military.  

“At my location, we have a lot of Hispanic military members,” said Chantell Simmons, the UMGC program coordinator at the base. “The panelists include a UMGC student and members of a Hispanic Heritage Committee on the base. We want to talk about real-life issues.”

Simmons, who is also a UMGC adjunct instructor, said topics for the roundtable included how having a second language affects identity. The panelists at the Latinx education event also discussed language, with one whose mother was born in Guatemala and her father in Jamaica, saying the pressure to advance her English-language skills eroded her ability to speak Spanish. Other panelists noted that bilingual college students often have unusual language barriers that universities do not take into account.

Both discussions also touched on the diversity that lies within the label “Hispanic.” Simmons talked of students on the base who were Puerto Rican and students who were Mexican American, and how their cultural identities widely differed.

“It is important to have events like this because it honors Hispanic American people and their legacy. It helps us to discover and rediscover their—and our—history,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Chelsie Gross, who manages the education office on the base. 

Simmons and Gross partnered to organize the online roundtable and ensure that access to the event was available to everyone on the base. Gross said the discussion was the serious spot amid a month of Hispanic heritage activities on the base, including a cookout with a Hispanic menu, salsa dancing and trivia competitions. 

“Sometimes we focus on the fun, but it’s nice to have the educational piece, to acknowledge … that men and women from all cultural backgrounds continue to influence where we are today,” Gross said. “Whether at UMGC or the military or wherever we may be, diversity and inclusion make us better and stronger—as an Air Force and as a country.  

“In unity there is strength,” she added.

International Literacy Day: Reading Shapes UMGC Lives

A University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) writing teacher hated reading when she was a child. An academic program director and author didn’t become interested in books until he was in college. The university’s senior vice president of global military operations turned to books because his family didn’t have the means to travel.

Today—Sept. 8—is celebrated around the world as International Literacy Day. A UNESCO resolution launched the day in 1967 to advance literacy as a human right and as essential in lifelong learning. In recognition of the day, UMGC leadership and faculty members looked back on their relationship with books and reading.

“There are so many moments in history that involve wisdom that came from reading. I think of Abraham Lincoln, of Martin Luther King Jr. I think of Malcolm X learning to read in prison, of Richard Wright talking about reading and writing,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler. “History is filled with the power of reading. Literacy broadens our horizons and helps us really grow as human beings.

“In its own way, it allows us to explore the world.” 

Fowler’s drive to read was fueled by impatience. He couldn’t wait for the moments when his mother or sister had time to read to him, so he learned to do it himself. By the time he started school as a 5-year-old, he was reading at a Grade 3 level—and was able to consolidate two years of elementary school, entering third grade at the age of six. 

Books were also a childhood fixture for Damon Freeman, collegiate professor and director of the History and African American Studies Program. His father read to him as an infant and toddler. 

“I vaguely remember getting a book around the age of 4. One day I walked up to my mother and began talking to her about ‘diplodocus,’” he said. “We have a photo somewhere of me trying to read my dinosaur book to my little sister.” Decades later, Freeman still owns that copy of “The True Book of Dinosaurs” by Mary Lou Clark.

The science section of any bookstore was Freeman’s go-to place as a child. His parents, both teachers, widened his collection by tucking in Shel Silverstein books for children—and he occasionally revisits a Silverstein book for its lessons about life.

“I think reading literacy and comprehension has been my greatest strength. I seemed to understand almost instinctively when a teacher would ask a question about the main idea or theme of a paragraph or chapter,” Freeman said. “I think the ability to contextualize facts and ideas is important to anyone’s life and has been central to my education in history and law.”  

Patricia Coopersmith, UMGC associate vice president and deputy director in the Europe division, also returns with frequency to a book she read when young: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen.

Patricia Coopersmith, UMGC associate vice president, Europe division

“The rags-to-riches, romance, historical perspective—and so much more—sweep me away to another place and time, take any stress out of my day and always remind me of a few life lessons that I shouldn’t forget,” she said.

Coopersmith, a fan of historical fiction, said her reading of stories about kings and queens fueled a desire to see the world and directly connects her job at UMGC to her early reading.

Jeanine Williams, director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, is clear about her early connection to books—and its irony. 

“I hated reading as a child,” said Williams. “It’s funny when you think that my professional background is actually in reading. I teach writing now but most of my work has been around students at the college level who needed reading support.” 

She said that work is designed to teach students how to more deeply understand the lessons found in stories. “I got into that because I realized how important literacy is to everything in life,” Williams explained.

She said she did not feel connected with books until sixth grade when a teacher “selected books that seemed to resonate with me and my classmates.” Today Williams usually is reading multiple books at a time. Even more, she is a demonstrative reader. 

“I don’t come to reading passively. When I read, I mark up the margins,” she said. “I get really engaged and have a conversation with the text.”

Author Steven Killings, director of the Humanities and Philosophy Program, described himself a late bloomer when it came to reading.

“I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17, after graduating high school, and didn’t really get interested in books until I was in college,” said Killings, the author of  “A Student Reader of Secular Latin Poetry from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages” and the novel “The Queen of Sorrows.”

“A professor of mine suggested that I visit the Newberry Library in Chicago for a class project. The Newberry was like the Pierpont Morgan in New York City or the Huntington Library in San Marino, those institutions founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by wealthy industrialists whose aim was to create a repository of ancient and medieval books and manuscripts for American scholars. 

“I became fascinated by the culture of medieval scholars and manuscripts at the Newberry. I became friends with the special collections curator, and I changed my college major and began studying Latin and Ancient Greek so I could read the medieval manuscripts,” he said.  

Killings’ interest in books cascaded into the collecting of rare books, as well as calligraphy and book binding. 

Libraries were also a favorite haunt of Reynaldo Garcia, a professor and director of the Community College Policy and Administration doctoral program. He recalled being a regular visitor to the library in the Catholic grammar school he attended. “For every book I finished, I was always anxious to get back to the library and pick the next one, and then the next one, throughout elementary, middle and high school.

“Reading for me was always an exciting privilege,” he said. “Early opportunities to explore and develop those reading muscles made me a very strong student and a really well-informed consumer of information who is able to examine things with a critical eye.”

Today Garcia splits his reading three ways—and he always has multiple books going at the same time. He reads books that keep him current in his field. He reads for self-development, a category that includes books about history, politics and governance. And he reads for pleasure, from airport paperbacks to classic literature. 

Childhood books hold a special place in the lives of many UMGC readers.

“My earliest memory about reading involves a book about a mouse who wanted to bake an apple pie. I was able to understand that much from the pictures,” said Valorie King, collegiate professor and director of the Cybersecurity Management and Policy Program. “I wanted to know the rest of the story but there was no one available to read the book to me—my older brother wanted to play outside with his friends and mom was busy with chores. 

“I decided then and there that I was going to learn to read so that I didn’t have to wait for anyone else,” she said.

King’s aspiration didn’t actually come true until second grade, when a nun at Holy Redeemer School in College Park, Maryland “took me in hand and taught me phonics and spelling.” From that point forward, she borrowed books from her school library on a daily basis and, during the summer, walked two miles each way to the county library “to check out as many books as my arms would hold.” Science fiction was her favorite genre. 

“Those were the days when Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein were writing juvenile fiction,” she said. “I am constantly amazed that I am living with the technologies that they and other authors created and described in their fictional works.”

She added that she gets some of her best ideas for cybersecurity-focused student projects and classroom discussions from the works of authors like S.E. Weir, J.D. Robb, C. J. Cherryh, Glynn Stewart, and Craig Martelle.

King is a voracious reader, currently on a Kindle reading streak that is close to 160 days long. 

Books were also a gateway to the world and new ideas for Lloyd “Milo” Miles, senior vice president of global military operations. 

“I come from a poor background, and books were the way we could escape and read about different places in the world we never thought we would see,” he said. “I could increase my imagination from reading science fiction—Isaac Asimov—or ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or even comic books.”

For his work at UMGC, there’s a book that Miles keeps close at hand, the war novel “Once an Eagle” by Anton Myrer. 

“I refer to it a lot in the speeches I make. It has messages about leadership that I value,” he explained. 

Miles said he reads nonfiction during the day and fiction “for enjoyment and escape” in the evening before he goes to bed. 

Miles retired from the U.S. Army as a major general before joining UMGC. In his real-life journeys around the globe, he has often been struck by how people—especially those who do not have a lot—value books. 

“If you gave them a book, it was like handing them a bar of gold,” he said. “I always appreciated when nonprofits would team up with military to help us distribute books in various parts of the world.

“I felt that maybe we were helping them escape to a bigger world, like I did as a child,” he said.

UMGC at Fort Meade: A Team that is Small but Mighty

When Daniel Norris completes his education this summer, he will receive two bachelor’s degrees—in business administration and cybersecurity—from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). He will have the distinction of completing two degrees in just two years while also working full time for the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade.

To call Norris an overachiever is an understatement. He is just 20 years old.

Norris is motivated and disciplined but another factor helped make possible his ambitious goals: the UMGC educational advisors assigned to Fort Meade.

The seven-person team at Fort Meade handles UMGC’s largest student enrollment of any military base worldwide. Four team members carry the title “military education coordinator,” each managing portfolios with as many as 1,900 students, among them active-duty and retired servicemembers, their family members, Department of Defense civilian employees, private sector military contractors connected to the base, veterans living near the Maryland base, and employees of the NSA.  

“I had started working at NSA in high school as an intern. I got a job there after graduation but knew I needed a degree to move ahead,” Norris said. “I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degrees in two years, so I needed to make sure I was taking the correct classes and not too many hard classes at the same time.”

He said UMGC’s team helped him sort through the degree requirements, assisted him in determining which combination of majors would best advance his goals, and walked his mother through the financial aid options. When Norris needed a dean’s approval for his course overload, the UMGC team was on his side.  

Nora Graves, UMGC Stateside Military Operations regional director whose area includes Fort Meade, has high praise for the base’s educational team, which she described as “resilient, tough, super easygoing, and highly diverse—which is also what the military is.”

At Fort Meade, the university enrolls servicemembers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, as well as the NSA Air Force and Navy commands.

“UMGC’s team works as a unit, like the most perfect family, on a base that’s highly secured. They get along well and help each other. And they all bring different skill sets,” Graves explained.

Educational coordinators—also known as counselors or advisors—assist students with myriad issues, from how to transfer credits to what to do when deployment occurs in the middle of a course. They understand how UMGC operates and the ins and outs of tuition assistance, including GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program benefits.

Prior to COVID-19, students contacted educational counselors via phone, email, and face-to-face meetings. During the pandemic, online meetings replaced in-person conversations. Although some in-person contact resumed for NSA-linked students in late June, Graves predicted that virtual advising rooms will become a permanent tool to help the team handle the fastest-growing enrollment of any military base where UMGC is active.

The workplace culture fostered by Khadijeh Sarvandani, Stateside Military Operations’ assistant director for the Central Region, is often cited as one reason for UMGC’s success at Fort Meade.

Team members are cross-trained so they can do other colleagues’ work if needed, and Sarvandani, who goes by the name Farrah, gives them opportunities to grow in their jobs, even if it means they may someday leave the team. 

“We watch each other’s backs,” Sarvandani said. “And we are all committed to the students.” Team members not only go to their students’ graduations, they attend servicemembers’ retirement parties and keep in touch with some students long after degrees have been earned.

Sarvandani’s most successful enrollment tools are the Military Open House events and the annual Spotlight on Security she launched a few years ago. The Spotlight on Security gathering, to be held virtually this year, brings speakers from Leidos, Amazon, Uber, and other companies to Fort Meade every October to talk about cybersecurity, technology, and career opportunities. Sarvandani’s team is on site to offer information about degree programs and classes. UMGC career services staff are also at the ready to answer questions.   

“Farrah’s team is really good at outreach, one of the reasons they’ve been successful. They are creative about getting the word out,” Graves said.

The ever-rising student enrollment at Fort Meade is positioned to ramp up even more in the months ahead thanks to an agreement announced in June between UMGC and the 270 non-military organizations in the Fort Meade Alliance. The agreement, which was developed through UMGC’s Corporate Learning Solutions office, reaches far beyond Fort Meade to provide discounted tuition for students worldwide.

Mary Sikes, one of the Fort Meade educational coordinators and a retiree from the Navy, described her colleagues as “open communications people” who jump in to help one another as needed. “Our mentality is ‘get the job done.’ It’s been like that as long as I’ve been here,” she said.

She called the team’s diversity was a strength, adding: “We look like the students we serve.”  

Several members of the team earned degrees from institutions that are part of the University System of Maryland; Sarvandani is a UMGC alumna. Sikes is a bilingual first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Mexico. Sarvandani, also multilingual, grew up in Iran. Three members of the team are Black. Just more than half are women.  

Rosario Talbert said the Fort Meade team guided her to a Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 2018. She didn’t know anything about UMGC until she attended an open house at the base.

“At first I was scared. This was a four-year college and here I was, a student with English as a second language and coming from a community college—with its in-person experience—to a four-year university with an online program,” she said. That changed when she found herself speaking to a UMGC team member in Spanish.

Talbert was later connected with Sikes.

“As a foreigner here, I didn’t know much about the system. Mary sat with me and explained everything. She’s very personable and she’s very caring,” Talbert said. “She also had everything on charts so I could visualize what I needed to do. That really helped me.”

Because Talbert’s husband was retired from the Navy, she did not qualify for military benefits. However, Sikes told her she was eligible for financial aid because she came to UMGC from a Maryland community college.

Sikes also stepped up when Talbert’s degree plans were in danger of being derailed, including when Talbert’s father in Spain fell ill.

As for Daniel Norris, his connection with the Fort Meade team continues. In October, he begins a master’s degree in cybersecurity at UMGC, continuing a family tradition. His mother is a UMGC alumna and his brother, a recent high school graduate, is enrolled at UMGC for the fall.

The Obstacle Course: One Student’s Life Journey to an MBA

Ida Halliburton has extra reasons to be proud of her new MBA from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). Like many UMGC students, she took a full course load while also juggling a career. Unlike other students, however, the 52-year-old grandmother did it—posting excellent grades along the way—while in transitional housing, learning the ins and outs of a new high-pressure job, and coming to terms with the physical after-effects of brain surgery.

Oh yes, and there was a pandemic underway.

“I compete against myself—I don’t compete against other people—and I know what I’m capable of doing,” Halliburton said. “Sometimes I set a standard for myself that people perceive as unrealistic or too much, but I just keep pushing.

“For me, giving up is not an option.”  

Halliburton’s UMGC degree continued a journey that was interrupted more than three decades earlier. She had enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University after high school but, just two semesters in, she joined the military. She spent the next seven years in the U.S. Marines, mostly based in California, working in aviation supply, inventory and logistics.

Halliburton was a sergeant when she left the service and resumed her studies, earning an associate degree in general studies with a concentration in English at Irvine Valley College and then a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication with a minor in journalism from Southeastern Louisiana University.

“I was going to start a master’s degree program right after I got my undergraduate degree, but I was a single mom with two children at that point, and I put my dreams and aspirations on hold to focus on my kids,” she said. “Then I found myself working with no time left to attend school. It was years and years before I was able to get back to school again.”

It was her job in the Office of the Provost at Chapman College, now Chapman University, that indirectly led her to UMGC. At the time, Chapman College was seeking accreditation as a university and planning to create a university college focused on servicemembers, working adults and other non-traditional students. Halliburton said Chapman’s provost and executive vice president looked to what was then University of Maryland University College as a model.

“That stuck with me for a long time, even after I left California. I knew and trusted the provost and if he held the school in high esteem, I knew it must be a good school,” she said.

The years passed. When her daughter neared her senior year of college, Halliburton decided to return to school. In the fall of 2019, she enrolled at UMGC.

“I had aspirations for my career but I kept getting rejected for jobs because I didn’t have a master’s degree,” she said. “When I knew I wanted to do an MBA, I remembered the University of Maryland Global Campus from my experience with the provost at Chapman.”

Just a month after she started UMGC classes from her home in Florida, Halliburton was hired to work in the nation’s capital as the invitation coordinator for U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. Her new job included managing requests for public appearances and speeches by the surgeon general.


“He traveled a lot and he could receive 2,000 to 3,000 requests in a month. My job was vetting the requests, briefing him on them, making sure the appearances were appropriate and aligned with his priorities and just really managing that whole process,” she said.

That high pressure job amped up even more when the coronavirus hit the news.

“All hell was breaking loose,” she said. “The deputy surgeon general was temporarily reassigned and detailed with overseeing COVID-19 testing, so she was gone. My direct supervisor was from the Centers for Disease Control, and I was surrounded by physicians talking about COVID-19 all the time, getting the information firsthand.”

Her daughter graduated from college during the pandemic, right into a tight job market. Even more, they were living in temporary housing with most of their possessions in storage in Florida. Halliburton had just arrived in the D.C. area when the lockdown was declared; it took 10 months before she could move into a permanent home in Virginia.

In addition to the housing upheaval, a new job, the pandemic and a full-time course load, Halliburton also had health problems to manage. Two years earlier, she underwent brain surgery—twice—for serious conditions and now has intermittent periods where it is difficult to focus. While acknowledging that it was a challenge at times to study and meet her course deadlines, she powered through.

Halliburton said an MBA is not necessarily the end of her education. For years, she has carried around an entrepreneurial idea she’d like to launch one day. She keeps the details confidential but said she may need more education to ensure the project’s success.

For now, she is focusing her energy on her current job as executive administrator for the deputy assistant secretary of the Army and on her family—her daughter, son, daughter-in-law and her six grandchildren “who bring me so much joy.”

Descendant of Slavery’s Compelling Life Journey Includes Military Service, a Musical Gift–And Now a UMGC Degree

Editor’s Note: Raymond Fisher recently was featured in WJLA-TV ABC 7’s Spotlight on Education series. Click HERE to watch.

Raymond Fisher is a father and grandfather, a technology professional, a musician, a military veteran and the descendent of an enslaved woman on George Washington’s farm. He now is adding another descriptor to his life: college graduate.

After a 25-year interruption in his education, Fisher earned a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management from University of Maryland Global Campus. Even more, he was selected as student speaker for the virtual commencement on May 15.

Ray Fisher will address his fellow graduates as the student speaker at the UMGC virtual commencement ceremony on May 15.

Fisher, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Gulf War, said the degree may not be his last engagement with UMGC. He wants to use his military benefits to enroll in a master’s program “and then look into getting a Ph.D.”  

In the late 1990s, Fisher was enrolled at Purdue University, pursing a degree in mechanical engineering, when he withdrew from his studies to raise a family.

“I was working and studying at the same time, and I made a decision that was in the best interest of my family,” he said. In the years that followed, he made a good income. The lack of a college degree wasn’t an obstacle in the fields where he worked: engineering, construction, project management and, eventually, Internet technology.

“Then, about four years ago, I was caught up in a cycle of layoffs at Freddie Mac. I looked for job opportunities and found a match with Booz Allen,” Fisher said. The IT consulting company was keen on him until it learned he had no college degree.

“That’s when I made a decision that I would never be turned away from a job because I didn’t have a degree. I enrolled at UMGC and picked up where I left off—a bachelor’s degree I had abandoned 25 years earlier,” he said.

Fisher was raised in a family where education, music and church were valued. His mother was a nurse and his father a teacher. In the District of Columbia neighborhood where he grew up in the 1970s, there was a lot of political activism; it was the stomping ground of Marion Barry and others who would become political players in the nation’s capital. Barry, who later served four terms as D.C. mayor, lived only two doors away.

“It was a very progressive time and we were exposed to a lot. I was enrolled at the first D.C. public school program for talented students,” he said. But his life was thrown off kilter when his mother died. He was 9. Two years later, his father died. 

The youngest of six children and the only boy in his family, Fisher was cared for by family members in Dallas, Texas, and spent summers in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He lived in Maryland for his sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, attending Forestville High School in Prince George’s County. There, he entered the ROTC program “and joined a Go-Go band called Players Choice, which was managed by our shop teacher.” As a member of the band, he performed at a concert with Public Enemy, which he describes as his “15 minutes of fame.”

Fisher said his lifelong love of music started in his church. Later, during eight years of military service that began when he was 19, he was exposed to both music in other countries and the global influence of American jazz and R&B. Today, he jams with his son, an aspiring hip hop musician, in a basement music studio. Percussion and rhythm are Fisher’s passion.

“I’m a helluva beat maker,” he explained with a laugh.

Like many UMGC students, Fisher juggled a job while studying. Even after a car accident left him with a concussion, he pushed through with his coursework. He attributed his drive and resilience to his roots, including enslaved ancestors and his father’s Native American background.

“I am an African descendent of slaves. An ancestor on my mother’s side was a slave of George Washington. A grandmother was a runaway slave in Texas,” he explained. “I don’t look at my family’s link to slavery as a prideful thing. It was an atrocity. But that’s who we were and we take pride in who we are.”

Fisher said getting his bachelor’s degree was made more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he credited his UMGC professors for being compassionate and working with students—including some on a class project team—who contracted the coronavirus.

“It was a long journey to get me to this point. There have been a lot of trials and tribulations,” Fisher said. “But one thing that helped is that at UMGC, I felt like we had a community.”   

Curiosity and UMCG Courses Open Doors for Former Servicemember

In 2018, when a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) professor mentioned in class that Student Anthropologist magazine had issued a call for papers, Ashley Mize took note.

A career with the U.S. Air Force had brought Mize to Europe from the Texas town where she grew up. It also unleashed her curiosity about different countries and cultures, encouraged her natural talent for foreign languages and led her to enroll at UMGC.    

Her experiences converged recently when she published an academic paper in Student Anthropologist magazine, looking at the Italian town of Solferino, a bloody 1859 battle and the tradition that brings a wave of International Red Cross and International Red Crescent volunteers to the community of 1,100 residents every June.

Mize was among 10,000 Red Cross volunteers from 76 countries who took part in the 2018 gathering in Solferino.

“Solferino was an amazing experience,” said Mize, who has a Bachelor of Science in social science from UMGC. “Everything was breathtaking—so much political history and unity and cultural diversity. I was exposed to cultures from all over the world, from the Middle East to Asia to different parts of Africa and South America and Europe.”

Her paper, which she drafted later, was entitled “Anthropology and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: A 2018 Interdisciplinary Observance in Solferino, Italy,” and appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Student Anthropologist magazine.   

Solferino was the site of the last military engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence. The armies of Austria, Sardinia, Hungary and the Second French Empire came together in a battle that left 6,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. The bloodshed inspired Jean-Henri Dunant of Switzerland to found the Red Cross as an independent organization to help victims’ families and bring nations together in both war and peace.

For the past 29 years, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have traveled to Solferino each year to reaffirm their commitment to unity and neutrality. Mize’s social science degree focused on anthropology, and she brought that perspective to her observations of the event.

Mize served six years in the U.S. Air Force, most of it stationed in Germany as a personnel journeyman. When her husband, also an Air Force member, was assigned to Italy, she moved along with him. It was there, in 2015, that she enrolled at UMGC.

“Her passion for languages brought her to UMGC as she pursued certificates in German and Italian Studies,” said Ricky Lucas, who was Mize’s academic adviser at the Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. “Her enjoyment of learning about culture and languages while taking UMGC Europe classes was not confined to Aviano Air Base only. Ashley traveled to Naples, Italy, to take the Italian Life and Culture course, to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany for the German Society and Culture course, and U.S. Army Garrison in Vicenza, Italy, to take an Intermediate Italian course.”

Mize said she booked low-cost flights on Ryanair to attend those UMGC classes at other military bases so she could finish her degree early. These were typically eight-week hybrid courses that met primarily online and for three weekends in person. She also traveled to Spain to attend an academic conference.

“I was taking 12 credits per semester—more than full time—and I had a rigorous system for studying.” She joked that more coffee and less sleep were part of the formula that enabled her to graduate from UMGC in December 2018.

Mize said the Italian language courses enabled the Solferino trip. Lucas said they also entrenched her in the local community.

“Her experiences with UMGC Europe gave her the confidence to join the Italian Red Cross—the Croce Rossa—as the only American member in the local organization,” Lucas said. “Ashley was able to use her language and cultural knowledge learned from UMGC in the most positive way possible.”

When Mize’s husband was subsequently transferred to Texas, she enrolled in a graduate program at Texas State University where she expects to complete a master’s degree in elementary education with ESL certification next year.

Her education plans don’t end there. She also intends to pursue a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) through a dual-accreditation program between the University of Texas and Cambridge University. And she wants to get an online teaching certificate. “UMGC definitely has a place in my heart,” said Mize, who served for more than a year and a half on the UMGC Student Advisory Council. “The travel and studying abroad that I did, including to other UMGC campuses for classes, really opened my understanding and experiences.”

UMGC and USO Launch Partnership in Europe

University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and the USO have much in common. They both serve members of the military and their families. They were “born” around the same time and sometimes share an overlapping volunteer base. Most importantly, in many locations where the USO has centers, UMGC also has an on-site presence.

The two organizations have now harnessed those similarities in a formal partnership that expands UMGC’s ability to put its faculty, courses and career services in front of servicemembers and their families in Europe.

“We wanted this to be a partnership with a lot of activities at the field level,” said Tony Cho, vice president and director of UMGC Europe. “The USO is an organization that serves servicemembers, as we are. This is the USO’s 80th year, and UMGC will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year. And our missions match closely.”

In addition to collaborating on events, Cho said the partnership will give UMGC access to USO centers, including in Germany at Ramstein Air Base and at some Landstuhl Regional Medical Center facilities. Ramstein has the biggest USO center outside the United States. During peak periods, as many as 20,000 people pass through it daily. The medical center, meanwhile, is the largest U.S. hospital outside the United States.

For its part, the USO will be able to use UMGC’s educational resources for events. The two organizations may also share marketing materials.

“Unlike stateside … there is not a lot of media we have access to in Europe for outreach. What we focus on is physical outreach—we go to the base exchange or to the commissary and set up tables with course fliers and swag items,” Cho said. He said the ability to also set up at USO venues will dramatically boost UMGC’s ability to connect with servicemembers and their families.

Grant McCormick, regional vice president for USO Europe, said the partnership builds on a longstanding record of cooperation. “University of Maryland Global Campus has been part of our events for some time. Faculty and staff already volunteer for USO events and support our staff in other ways,” McCormick said. “We’ll take more of the things we’re doing now and include UMGC in those events.”

McCormick cited the USO Coffee Connections program for military spouses as one area of collaboration. “We thought it would be wonderful to have UMGC faculty give briefings or presentations at Coffee Connections,” he said. “They could speak about educational opportunities. They could speak about financial counseling.” McCormick said the university also could be part of big USO barbecues featuring music and fireworks, and the USO could bring its mobile canteen to UMGC events.

Cho noted that USO employees receive their own tuition assistance that could be used toward UMGC degrees, while USO volunteers could be a potential talent pool for the university in Europe. “These are military friendly and service-oriented volunteers, sometimes the spouses on military bases,” Cho explained. “We may want to hire some of them as full-time employees.”

The partnership launched on March 29 with a photo opportunity—the presentation by UMGC of an oversized check to the USO for $25,000 and a spontaneous dance by McCormick and Cho. The good-natured dance sparked the idea for a dance challenge between the two organizations at a joint event around Halloween.

The new partnership is modeled on a similar collaboration the university has with the USO in Asia and Hawaii.

McCormick called it “humbling” to partner with an organization with a similar mission and historic timeline then revealed that he has a personal connection to UMGC. The U.S. Air Force veteran took classes through the university 35 years ago when he was stationed at the Misawa Air Base in Japan. “I was about 22 at the time. I took Algebra I, English literature and a language class,” he said.

UMGC Europe was established in Germany in 1949 as the first university to send faculty overseas to educate active-duty U.S. military personnel after WWII. The division provides services to approximately 14,000 students annually in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (europe.umgc.edu).

Meeting the Teacher Shortage: An Accelerated Pathway at UMGC

If more than 100,000 certified teachers joined the labor force tomorrow, it still would not be enough to meet the shortfall in schools across the country. University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is addressing that workplace gap through an accelerated online program that not only carries participants through to a master’s degree but saves them time and money along the way.Continue Reading

New Collaboration with Amazon Web Services Preps Service Members for Post-military IT Careers

Under a new corporate collaboration with University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and Amazon Web Services (AWS), a group of service members has been going through the Amazon Apprenticeship program since early November. The apprenticeship is a U.S. Department of Labor-certified program that offers a combination of paid immersive learning and on-the-job training with Amazon.Continue Reading