Largest Class of Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipients to Attend University of Maryland Global Campus

Unique Scholarship Program Recognizes Volunteer Service of Family Members and Friends Who Care for Severely Wounded, Ill or Injured Military Servicemembers

Adelphi, Md. (June 30, 2021)—Twelve caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured military servicemembers were awarded full scholarships to attend University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). That is the largest number of scholarships the Pillars of Strength program has ever awarded in a single year. 

Of the 51 recipients of scholarships since the program began in the fall of 2013, 13 have now graduated and four more are expected to join them by December. 

“Pillars of Strength is truly a marquee program for UMGC,” said President Gregory Fowler. “It continues our long tradition of service to the military and aligns precisely with our goal of bringing education within reach for underserved populations, thus improving lives and strengthening communities around the world. We are so proud of this year’s recipients, so grateful for their service to injured and wounded military personnel, and so pleased to be able to support them as they work to overcome the challenges ahead and improve their own lives and the lives of those they love.” 

“We are once again pleased that we have been able to expand the Pillars program even further with 12 more full scholarships to our great recipients,” said Richard F. Blewitt, founder and CEO of The Blewitt Foundation, which established the Pillars of Strength program in association with UMGC. “We are proud to remain the only program of its type providing full scholarships to the caregivers of our military heroes.” 

The scholarships are designed to help volunteer caregivers, usually spouses of servicemembers. These scholarship recipients have had their worlds turned upside down as they take over day-to-day caregiving responsibilities while maintaining a household, earning income to make ends meet and, often, raising children. 

The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made those challenges much more difficult. Among other things, they complicated the caregivers’ ability to be present when their servicemembers and veterans, who often had memory problems, visited doctors. 

These caregivers receive few, if any, educational benefits from the federal government, yet academic degrees are often essential to their ability to support their families. UMGC’s fully online programs allow these students the flexibility they need to earn college credit on their own schedules. 

“Caregivers give and give and then give some more… often losing themselves in that cycle of care,” said Besa Pinchotti, executive director and CEO of the National Military Family Association, a partner organization in the scholarship program.  Providing scholarships to these 12 caregivers isn’t a gift, but an investment in the future of their families who gave so much to our country. It’s an honor to work with The Blewitt Foundation and UMGC who are making it all possible. 

Melissa Allen, one of this year’s Pillars of Strength recipients, said it felt like a weight had been lifted when she learned she had been chosen for a scholarship. “I let out a huge cry and sigh of relief because it finally was like those bricks that were on my shoulders? They fell off.” 

Although the specific circumstances surrounding each of this year’s recipients—all wives—were different, in many ways their experiences were the same. 

They talked about how the “invisible wounds” of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder often went unrecognized while the servicemembers were in the field. These injuries also were not obvious to the public, and the caregivers faced critics who wondered why their husbands were not working. What the public could not see were the sleepless nights, the psychotic spells and the struggles to manage the most basic needs. 

Caregivers married to men who were committed to their military careers said their husbands did not want to accept that they were wounded, ill, or injured, even as they were sent back into battle. 

These women had to come to grips with how to help relieve the pain and psychological suffering of their loved ones while still raising children, working to support their families and handling most of the household finances and decisions. They had to become quick studies in disorders with long, complicated names. And they had to learn how to take care of themselves so they could continue to have the strength for their work and their caregiving duties. 

The bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration often was overwhelming, many said. One recipient has gone to work for the VA with the express purpose of using her experience to make it easier for other injured veterans and their caregivers to get the attention they need. 

“I want to help the veterans and their families in this journey, especially the new ones who are coming into the system,” said scholarship recipient Karen Lopez. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories—how patients would fall through the cracks, how family members struggled to get appointments for their spouses. I want to make sure the gaps in the system don’t happen to them, at least on my watch.” 

Here are the stories of 12 remarkable women who are setting off on a path to remake themselves and build the resiliency of their families.

Melissa Allen, Bloomingdale, GA

Elisabeth Baugess, Springfield, VA

Volha Butkouskaya, North Potomac, MD

Sasha Clarkin, Bayville, NJ

Lelia Cottner, Kissimmee, FL

Karen Lopez, Kissimmee, FL

Amanda Martin, Fort Bragg, NC

Connie Ozmer, Bonney Lake, WA

Lisa Shaw, Monroeville, PA

Anna Soler, Tacoma, WA

Alison Storemski , Bowie, MD

Elisa Zanni-James, Fort Mill, SC

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.”

Army Veteran Credits UMGC Professor for Post-Military Career Success

Andrew Eyerly is the outreach director for the Citizens Climate Lobby, an international grassroots nonprofit with more than 200,000 supporters. How the Army veteran got there is the story of a University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) professor who saw Eyerly’s potential and offered help at each step of his career.

Like many UMGC students, Eyerly—who goes by the first name Drew—joined the Army right out of high school. He came from a small Pennsylvania town and was only the second in his family to graduate from high school. No one talked about college.

“There was nobody really to help me with that process, and at 17 years old, it was just overwhelming to me,” he said. “It was just easier for me to sign on the line, put on a uniform and go off and do that stuff.”

The Army was good to Eyerly. During the first two years of his service, he became a preventive medicine specialist trained in environmental and occupational health. His job was to limit soldiers’ exposure to hazards in their environment. He saw the effect on soldiers’ respiratory systems when that didn’t happen. After seven years in the service, he became a combat medic.

During his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he found himself increasingly focused on how fuel convoys were linked to servicemember casualties. He could see that petroleum is needed in every aspect of overseas military operations. That sparked his interest in how a more sustainable U.S. energy infrastructure could lessen dependence on other countries.

As he expanded his understanding of the energy infrastructure, Eyerly was also deepening his conservative political views and questioning the role of government regulation and taxation. He wasn’t worried about climate change. He saw it as a problem for the far future that did not affect him.

Until his daughter was born.

“It took the birth of a 10-pound baby girl—with cheeks so big, she couldn’t open her eyes—to get me to open my eyes,” he said.

Leaving the Army, Eyerly wanted to continue his education. One college told him he would have to start from scratch to earn credits for graduation. Then he found UMGC and its environmental management degree. He enrolled after a counselor informed him that his military training would translate into 45 to 55 credits, shaving about a year and a half off the time it typically took to earn a bachelor’s degree.

As part of his program, Eyerly ended up in the virtual classroom of Professor Sabrina Fu, who now directs UMGC’s Environmental Science and Management Program. Fu noticed that Eyerly was not active in discussions in her classes. She didn’t realize he was biting his tongue because he believed his classmates did not share his political philosophy regarding government regulation and taxation. She encouraged him to speak up, and he took her advice to heart.

“Everyone was just tax, tax, tax,” he said. “I guess I lost my cool a little bit. I put my real thoughts all over the discussion board.”

A day or so later, Fu sent him an email. Eyerly replied with an apology for his rants in class, but his professor encouraged him to speak out, telling him that conservative voices were needed in the climate change arena. Fu was working with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), which trains volunteers to build relationships with elected representatives to influence climate policy. The organization supports carbon fee-and-dividend legislation through which carbon fees would be collected and returned to taxpayers as direct payments.

Fu invited Eyerly to check out the organization’s website and arranged a scholarship so he could attend his first “lobby day” in Washington. He found he could talk with ease to people there about his conservative ideas on how to fight climate change—something he could not do in his conservative social circle in Evans, Georgia.

He said CCL “helped me with my advocacy and how to speak on this topic without being adversarial.”

As soon as he completed his B.S. degree in Environmental Management at UMGC, Eyerly immediately enrolled in a second bachelor’s degree program—in occupational health and safety—at another university while working with the Environmental Protection Division in the George Department of Natural Resources taking air samples.

That’s when Fu contacted him again. Citizens Climate Lobby was looking for someone to head its outreach to conservatives. She thought he would be a perfect fit. Was he interested?

Fu said consensus on climate change requires taking the case beyond a one-sided viewpoint, something she believed Eyerly capable of. When the lobby’s president asked if she would recommend Eyerly, Fu was quick to endorse her former student.

“All I know is we can’t keep doing things the way we have been doing it,” she said. “Drew comes from a very different background than most CCL members, and he offers a perspective not often heard there.”

Because of his military service and background, he is able to talk to staunch Republicans, she said. Since he’s only 33, he brings a youthful perspective. She noted that Eyerly has done a lot with veterans and with habitat conservation. She told the CCL president that he was just what the organization needed.

“I never thought in a million years I would get that job,” Eyerly said. “But [Fu] always had better ideas for me than I did, and here I am.”

Many conservatives oppose what they view as overburdening environmental regulation. A large percentage even doubt that climate change is a man-made existential threat. How does Eyerly open their minds?

“I begin by listening,” he said. “I find out where they’re at.”

He said many conservatives like him enjoy outdoor activities and hunting. He starts by noting the changes in their surroundings caused by pollution and climate shifts. “As a sportsman, you get to see firsthand how it’s impacting your lifestyle,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t make that connection.”

He also talks about the economic impact caused by pollution and its damage to the environment. He points out that those costs have to be borne by someone. Then he refers to conservative economists and the lens they use to evaluate the costs of climate change. Many of those economists argue that raising the carbon fee can strengthen the nation’s economy, reduce regulation, help working-class Americans, shrink the size of government and promote national security.

Eyerly said a carbon fee can generate three jobs for every one the fossil fuel industry creates without it. Still, he acknowledged, it can be difficult to bring conservative legislators onboard when their supporter base is suspicious of anything that addresses climate change.

“They need cover,” he said. “They need something that they can move behind while addressing the issue without saying that they’re addressing this issue. There are a lot of Republicans that are active in the discussion up on … [Capitol] Hill.”

Not only does Eyerly credit his UMGC professor for guiding him to his job with Citizens Climate Lobby, but he said Fu’s influence on his career continues.

“She doesn’t take no for an answer,” he said. “She is so passionate, she’s so energetic about things. You can’t help but fall in line with her perspective. It doesn’t matter if you are uncomfortable with the topic or not. You’re going to address it because you want to work with her. “She’s someone I know I can call and talk to and get honest feedback.”

University of Maryland Global Campus and Fort Meade Alliance Team Up to Increase Access to Higher Education for Employees of Regional Group’s Member Organizations

Adelphi, Md. (June 3, 2021)—University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and the Fort Meade Alliance (FMA), which includes more than 270 partnered organizations, are teaming up to increase access to higher education for the employees of FMA members.

The mission of the FMA is to promote Fort George G. Meade as a growing regional economic asset and provide impact to the region with targeted programs and initiatives. The alliance with UMGC is designed to increase the affordability of higher education through a tuition discount program for all employees of FMA member organizations with permanent residence out of state.

“Our teaming up with the Fort Meade Alliance is a match of two missions that can increase the skills of the workforce and boost businesses and economic opportunity for people in the region,” said Blakely Pomietto, senior vice president and Chief Academic Officer at UMGC. “UMGC is focused on educating adult students who are juggling full-time jobs—including military service—with family and other responsibilities, as well as their studies. We offer workforce-relevant programs and student services that are designed to support students who find going to classes on a traditional campus either impractical or impossible.”

“We are excited to team up with educational institutions like UMGC that have high standards in education and can bring a significant offering to the men and women of the Fort Meade region,” said Doreen Harwood, FMA President. “This partnership provides our FMA members with affordable education options that will help  advance their careers.”

Eligible employees can choose courses from any of the university’s 90 academic programs, available entirely online, including in disciplines such as biotechnology, cybersecurity, data analytics, and information technology that are in high demand in today’s increasingly technical workplace. UMGC also saves students money by using digital resources, which have replaced costly publisher textbooks in most courses.

“UMGC has had a historic relationship with educating and supporting military servicemembers on installations throughout the world for nearly 75 years,” said Nora Graves, regional director at UMGC whose area includes Ft. Meade. “Supporting an organization like the Fort Meade Alliance (FMA) whose entire mission is to provide assistance in the growth and stability of Fort Meade and its commission and the partners that work alongside the military is an honor.”

UMGC’s online format makes it a great choice for continuing education, an advantage that has been underscored by the challenges that many brick-and-mortar colleges and universities have faced while operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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University of Maryland Global Campus and Easterseals DC MD VA Join Forces to Support Military and Veteran Students and Alumni

Organizations to Collaborate on Education Fairs, Support Services and Other Programs and Activities  

Adelphi, Md. (May 24, 2021)—University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and Easterseals DC MD VA have teamed up to support military-affiliated students with a host of programs designed to help them secure employment, housing, healthcare and other needs as they transition to civilian careers. 

“Easterseals is a world-class organization that provides compassionate and quality care and support to active duty servicemembers, veterans, and their families,” said Nicole DeRamus-Suazo, Ph.D., assistant vice president for Veterans Programs at UMGC. “We are pleased and honored to join this alliance and help bring that stellar service and support to our military-affiliated students and alumni and their families where they need it most.” 

The alliance collectively integrates the efforts of the UMGC’s Veterans Programs, Career Services, and Corporate Learning Solutions teams and yields an agreement that aligns with the missions of both organizations and supports transitioning veterans and their families. 

“We are excited to partner with UMGC to serve members of the military community more comprehensively, said Jon Horowitch, president and CEO of of Easterseals DC MD VA. “At Easterseals, we are committed to respecting each individual and ensuring he or she meets personal goals— which is critical for veterans transitioning to civilian employment who want a meaningful career.”  

As part of the alliance, Easterseals DC MD VA will connect UMGC students with internships and other employment opportunities at their organization, while UMGC will invite Easterseals to participate in the university’s military and veteran appreciation fair, military open houses, informational webinars and career fairs. Additionally, Easterseals employees and their spouses and dependents may qualify for tuition discounts at UMGC.  

Easterseals provides a variety of services to ensure military families are fully embraced in a hopeful, inclusive community, including the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals for mental health; the Veterans Staffing Network (including the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program) for employment coaching and placement; Military Family Respite, which provides support for military families whose children have severe disabilities and children of wounded warriors; Child Development Services for military families (including the Little Warriors scholarship program for children of wounded warriors); and Adult Day Services that help keep veterans with disabilities out of nursing homes and in the community. 

Paul Chilcote Navigated Life Challenges and the Demands of a Military Career on His Path to a Degree in Cybersecurity

Air Force Veteran Played a Key Role in UMGC Cyber Competition Team’s Recent 1st-Place Finish at the Maryland Cyber Challenge

For Paul Chilcote, life sometimes felt like a juggling act.

“Often, I found myself completing readings and written assignments late at night,” said Chilcote, whose path to a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity Management and Policy, which he received in May, was anything but easy. “Other times, my location or current work duties prevented me from taking classes for a semester or two,” he added.

But Chilcote, recently separated from the United States Air Force, persevered, chipping away at his degree requirements one class at a time while also maintaining a full-time military career and the responsibilities of being a single parent, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Chilcote learned persistence early and followed his passion in technology tenaciously. “When I was a kid, I was navigating the command line on an old Amiga computer and playing games on now-obsolete 5-inch floppy disks,” he said. As a teen, he was online constantly, even during the dial-up days.

“I was making friends with computer enthusiasts all over the world, learning to modify hardware and write programs by talking to these new friends in online chatrooms and message boards.”

High school classes in computer programming, 3D animation, and Cisco networking led Chilcote to join the Air Force in 2009 as a fighter aircraft crew chief, where his interests in computers and electronics helped him quickly learn the complex electrical systems that enable aircraft to fly.

Eventually Chilcote seized on an opportunity to retrain as a cyberwarfare operator. In 2013, that training opportunity, as well as his passion for computers and networking, prompted him to enroll in a cybersecurity program at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), tackling one or two classes at a time at night after work.

“My classes at UMGC and my own self-guided learning and computer hobbies helped me prepare for the difficult computer skills tests required to gain acceptance into the Air Force’s training program for cyber warfare operations,” he said. From 2016-18, Chilcote trained for and was tested on system administration, network configuration, and advanced cybersecurity concepts. After that, he began serving as a cyberwarfare operator for the Air Force.

In 2020, Chilcote added “full-time single parent of two” to his résumé, which prompted his decision to leave the military. “I was faced with the challenge of getting my two children through elementary school online, as well as my own classes, while still performing my military duties,” he said. And so he began preparing to separate from the Air Force in late 2020 so that he could devote more time to his children and their hybrid school schedule.

Now a civilian, having separated from the military in March 2021, Chilcote’s journey has led him to his current work as a penetration tester for CyberPoint International, a Maryland-based Department of Defense contractor. Through it all, his UMGC courses in cybersecurity policy and management helped increase his awareness of the complex interaction of laws, regulations and guidelines that companies must manage.

Chilcote capped off his academic accomplishments as a member of the UMGC cyber competition team that won the Maryland Cyber Challenge, the national tournament held during the annual Cyber Maryland conference. Competing in cyber events also contributed to his professional development, allowing him to mentored other students and gain invaluable real-world problem-solving skills. “These events have helped me develop creative solutions and think outside of the typical use of many computer technologies,” he said.

For Chilcote, perseverance and passion paid off, and his advice to other students balancing work and life is simple.

“Don’t be intimidated,” he said. “Cybersecurity is a broad field with countless areas of specializations. No one person knows everything; everyone is constantly learning and relearning as new technologies arise, change and improve.”

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.”   

UMGC ALUMNA BRIG. GEN. JANEEN L. BIRCKHEAD HAS SUCCEEDED BY “HAVING A PLAN—AND A PLAN TO CHANGE THE PLAN”

Rising to the Top Echelons of the Maryland National Guard, Birckhead Excelled at Leading National Guard Troops from Around the Country in Protecting the U.S. Capitol After the Failed Insurrection
and During the Presidential Inauguration in January

As a young girl growing up in Snow Hill, a small hamlet on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. Public service and community involvement were hallmarks of her immediate and extended family; her mother was a judge and several aunts were teachers.

A good student, Birckhead scored a prestigious summer internship when she was in high school, working as a page in the U.S. Senate, a position sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. She majored in political science at Hampton University in Virginia, but instead of moving on to law school, chose a career in public service and the military.

Birckhead’s decision was rooted in a lesson she learned from her mother when Birckhead was a sixth grader. She had stayed up late to finish a poster, and on her way to school the next day her mother let her know that she had done a good job. Later, though, she pointed out that the poster could have been great, if only Birckhead hadn’t procrastinated.

“I received the message loud and clear,” Birckhead vividly recalled. “I needed to take charge of my life and not let things distract me.”

Fast-forward to her senior year of high school, and Birckhead’s mother was at it again when Birckhead was applying for financial aid. She mentioned an Army ROTC scholarship, and her mother questioned whether Birckhead would be chosen in the highly selective process.

Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead

“I enjoyed competition,” said Birckhead, taking on her mother’s not-so-veiled challenge with gusto. In reality, her mother was not surprised when Birckhead earned the scholarship, which changed the trajectory of her daughter’s life.

Birckhead’s ability to switch gears and adapt, “to have a plan, but also a plan to change the plan,” she says, has served her well as she rose through the ranks, first in the Army reserves and then for the next 27 years (and counting) of her distinguished career in the Maryland Army National Guard.

She has been a chemical officer, an Aide de Camp to the Adjutant General of the Maryland Guard, commanded troops at the company, battalion and brigade levels, and served with distinction as a team leader and the Designated Military Officer for the Office of Administrative Review for the Detention of Enemy Combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Birckhead has also deployed on two separate missions to Afghanistan, first supporting plans to field and grow the Afghan National Security Forces as Deputy Operations Chief, and more recently as Division Chief for Logistics at the Joint Forces Headquarters.

After commanding a regional Army training institute, Birckhead went back to Capitol Hill and directed the Legislative Liaison Office for the Maryland National Guard.

She followed her mentor, Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, in company command, battalion command and, in 2018, as assistant adjutant general for Army, when Singh promoted Birckhead to the position Singh once held.

“I admire and hold her in high esteem and seek her counsel,” said Birckhead of Singh, who retired in 2019. “She is a role model and someone who can give me another perspective on what’s going on in the world.”

Birckhead was part of a first-in-the-nation all-female state National Guard command staff, which also included April Vogel, who was promoted by Singh to assistant adjutant general for Air several months after Birckhead, and Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa D. Wilson, the highest-ranking enlisted person. Birckhead takes extra pride in the fact that she, Singh and Vogel are also women of color.

“I didn’t even realize that it was going to line up this way,” Singh told The Washington Post in 2018. “It’s not like I engineered it for all of them to end up in these positions. It just so happened that these talented ones started rising to the top.”

It was another Birckhead mentor, Gen. James F. Frettered, who encouraged her to join the National Guard in 1993 and who emphasized the importance of education as the key to her advancing up the ranks.

His advice had an immediate effect. Birckhead enrolled at University of Maryland Global Campus (then University of Maryland University College) in fall 1993 because of its reputation as a flexible option for people like her who must juggle a full-time job and military service. Birckhead was doing both, working in legislative affairs on Capitol Hill and serving in the National Guard.

“The military teaches you to think a certain way, so it is important to attend a university outside the service to be able to think more broadly about issues,” she said.

Birckhead earned a master’s degree in management from UMGC and attributed the program with helping her to prioritize, take her critical thinking skills to another level and better articulate concepts. She added that having older students in her classes at UMGC elevated the discourse.  “Many of my fellow students had more life experience and were working in a variety of different fields, so I was learning not just from my professors.”

She also earned a master’s degree from the U.S. Army War College, preparing her to succeed in her leadership roles in the military, and ultimately leading to her assignment commanding Task Force Capitol, following the failed insurrection on Jan. 6 and continuing through the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

People asked, “Why her?” Birckhead’s response: “Why not me? I worked on the Hill, I know it very well. I’m a leader. I’ve led at every level. I can do this.

“Not to say it wasn’t a very big challenge,” she added, “working in an environment that was volatile and uncertain. It was important that I was able to build a strong team [at the Maryland National Guard] and bring them with me.”

Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead was named by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to lead the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force.

Birckhead commanded more than 16,000 National Guard troops from across the country and was impressed with their dedication. “Having soldiers from every state on the ground, as professionals coming together and perform, was extraordinary,” she said.

Reflecting on a remarkable moment, Birckhead, who had been looking out from the Task Force operations center on the day of the inauguration and observing the peaceful transfer of power, said, “it was very moving for me and for all of the soldiers who were guarding our democracy that day.”

Following her role at the Capitol, Birckhead was selected by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to head the COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force. She currently juggles that responsibility with her position as deputy commanding general for reserve affairs at the U.S. Army War College.

Her accomplishments stand out, underscored by the fact that she has also held full-time civilian positions during her entire National Guard career. Among those roles, Birckhead, who is currently a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau Trust Funds Administration, has also served as a special agent in charge of Defense Security Service and has worked in the Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights field at the Office of Personnel Management.

As a distinguished UMGC alumna, Birckhead will present the keynote address at the university’s stateside virtual commencement ceremony on May 15. What will she tell graduates? “Be proud of the degree and let it be known you are a UMGC graduate—and go back and tell your story.”

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).