Drexel University: Educating Veterans, Active-Duty Servicemembers, and Their Families Online

Drexel University

Drexel University was a pioneer in technology-enhanced education for working adults. The university launched its first online courses in 1996, and now offers more than 140 online degree and certificate programs – using the same accredited curriculum and faculty as it does on campus. Drexel also has a longstanding tradition of educating veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and their families. The university serves hundreds of such students each year, both on campus and online.

Drexel is located in the heart of Philadelphia. It was founded in 1891, and it is now the nation’s 14th largest private university, with more than 23,500 students. U.S. News & World Report magazine recently ranked Drexel fourteenth among national universities in its list of “Most Innovative Schools.”

The University has a long military history. The campus is home to the Philadelphia Armory, a National Guard facility and multipurpose venue built in 1916. In 1918, the University established its Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, and Army ROTC remains an integral part of the University. In fact, until 1969, Drexel required all of its male students to take part in this program.

The University has expanded its participation in military training through cross-enrollment agreements with the University of Pennsylvania and the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), and with St. Joseph’s University and the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (AFROTC).

Drexel’s military legacy continues through the Yellow Ribbon Program, which helps bridge the gap between what colleges charge in tuition and what the federal government covers under the Post-9/11 GI Bill®. As a Yellow Ribbon school, Drexel has committed $2 million to provide a tuition-free education for:

  • veterans who are eligible to receive the maximum benefit rate under the Post-9/11 GI Bill

  • dependents (spouses and children) who are eligible for transfer of entitlement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill – that is, dependents who can receive benefits transferred from an eligible servicemember

Drexel is also among a small group of private, non-profit institutions that allow an unlimited number of eligible veterans to enroll under the program, both on campus and online.

PROGRAMS AND SUPPORT

Drexel offers veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and their families a wide variety of online degree and certificate programs with:

  • tuition savings of 10 to 40 percent

  • convenient access – students can attend class wherever and whenever it is most comfortable and convenient, an advantage for veterans and servicemembers who are used to unconventional hours

  • services, resources, and affinity groups to keep the students moving across the finish line

  • military-focused advising – Drexel University Online’s military program specialist serves as a central contact for everything from the application process to military education benefits

In addition to the services provided to veterans and their family members, Drexel has an Office of Veteran Student Services that supports these students – whether studying on campus or online – by:

  • acting as community liaison for veteran matters

  • serving as the official point of contact for campus communication

  • working with academic advisers to monitor student progress

  • recommending campus and community resources

In 2010, the office launched a campus-wide Drexel Veterans Task Force to expand institutional support for military students – a move that resulted in significantly higher rates of academic success. The office, the task force, and the Drexel Veterans Association (DVA) continue to develop military-focused tools and resources.

In addition, the University offers a free tool to help veterans translate their military experiences to civilian skills and jobs. In a matter of minutes, veterans can enter their Joint Services Transcripts, and the software identifies civilian jobs available by ZIP Code, with salary information. Skills are also mapped to degree programs that lead to careers.

LEADING DREXEL UNIVERSITY ONLINE

Susan C. Aldridge, Ph.D., is senior vice president of online learning at Drexel University and president of Drexel University Online. She is responsible for providing comprehensive services for online students and for developing innovative approaches to online curricula, teaching, and student assessment.

Aldridge spent six years as president of University of Maryland University College. Before that, she served for 10 years as vice chancellor for the Global Campus at Troy University in Alabama. Prior to joining Drexel, she worked as a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). The association commissioned her to write a book, Wired for Success: Real-World Solutions for Transforming Higher Education – which she co-authored with Kathleen Harvatt, Drexel University Online’s Assistant Vice President for Strategic Communications.

Aldridge is a frequent keynote speaker at national and international conferences and a consultant to University presidents, government officials, and business leaders in the areas of technology-enhanced learning, expanded academic access, increased student success, sustainable campus growth, and global academic partnerships. She has received awards from the United States Department of Health and Human Services and its Administration on Aging; the Social Security Administration; the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization; and the professional association Women in Technology.

While at Troy University, Aldridge taught an occasional class, which often included military students. “My graduate management course included a flight surgeon, nurse officers, veterans serving in corporate executive positions, and stealth bomber pilots,” she said.

“The students were extremely intelligent, focused, and dedicated. I was impressed by each of them and the remarkable agility with which they were balancing their careers, family responsibilities, and education. They brought rich experience to the courses, and they wanted to apply the knowledge in their daily work.”

Aldridge believes that educated servicemembers and veterans are better equipped to serve our country. “An educated military cultivates the strategic thought leadership that is so necessary for protecting the country in this complex, technology-enhanced world,” she said.

During her career, Aldridge has developed a passion for serving military students and their families. “Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit more than 100 military base education centers in over 20 countries,” she said, “and the servicemembers and veterans I have taught have always been among my most dedicated and hardworking students. It has been a distinct honor in my career to support these men and women, as well as their family members.”

Aldridge also recognizes that veteran students face unique challenges with certain aspects of their post-military education. “They need knowledgeable military specialists to help them navigate that field,” she said. “Tuition benefits for veterans are complex. It’s also challenging to translate military education into academic course equivalencies.

So veteran students require advisors who are experienced in both – which is why it is always best to hire veterans who know the ropes to fill those counseling roles."

A COUNSELOR AND STUDENT

One such advisor is Tiffany Dydak, who joined Drexel University Online as a military enrollment counselor in August 2014. She is also a student at Drexel and a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

As a counsellor, she serves as a central point of contact for everything from choosing a program of interest to military education benefits, to starting the application process. With her military experience, she understands the unique challenges military-affiliated students encounter, and she works with prospective students to match their military experiences with degree and certificate programs.

Dydak enlisted in the Army Reserve in April 2005 and joined the Guard in July 2014. Her primary military occupational specialty is chemical specialist and her secondary is military police. Her rank is specialist. In May 2016, she passed the course required to join the Military Funeral Honor Guard.

She served in Iraq while in the Reserve. “I deployed to Fallujah and Mosul as an MP with the 812th MP Company out of Orangeburg, New York, from 2008 until 2009,” she said. “We worked as police transition teams training Iraqi police.”

On the academic side, Dydak has a Master of Arts in National Security Studies from American Military University. She is currently working toward her Graduate Certificate in Project Management online at Drexel. She expects to reach that goal in 2017.

DREXEL ONLINE STUDENT SUCCESSES

One Degree Leads to Another

Amanda Hart, who served for six years in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, is pursuing Drexel’s online Master of Science in Nursing: Nursing Education. She began her nursing studies after completing her military service, earning a diploma in nursing at the Reading Hospital School of Health Sciences in Reading, Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia. She then went on to work as an emergency department nurse at Reading Health System. A few years later, she started the online RN-to-BSN (Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing) program at Drexel, which she completed in 2015.

Hart’s Drexel education has helped her succeed in her current position. “I am a staff emergency / trauma nurse at the Reading Hospital Emergency Department,” she said. “I also serve as a co-chair of the department’s Practice Council, responsible for incorporating evidence-based practice into the care we provide for patients. In addition, I am on the disaster planning and alarm management teams.”

Why did she choose Drexel? “I selected Drexel due to their partner discount with my employer, their prestigious reputation, and their great veteran support programs,” she said. “Once I graduated with my BSN, I decided to continue on for my MSN. I was very satisfied with my experience with Drexel University Online, so I chose Drexel again. The Office of Veteran Student Services has been absolutely amazing in supporting me.”

The flexibility of an online program held a lot of appeal for Hart. “I work from 11:00 until 23:30 two or three days a week, and I have a daughter,” she said. “Attending traditional evening classes wasn’t an option for me. I loved the idea of an asynchronous program where I could complete my schoolwork whenever it was convenient for me.”

Technology plays a big role in Hart’s Drexel education. “Both the BSN and MSN programs use Drexel Blackboard for the course outline and course information,” she said. “Both utilize discussion boards in Blackboard, where students reply to a prompt and then discuss the topic on their posts and other students’ posts.”

“They both use Collaborate, which is an online classroom. Most classes have two Collaborate sessions. Usually, you can watch an archived version afterward if you can’t attend the live session. The professor can display lecture slides while speaking, and students can speak or type into a text discussion. In the MSN program, two courses I just completed used ApprenNet, which is a forum where students record video responses to a prompt. Students are then responsible for viewing and critiquing other students’ video responses.”

Hart has more ideas for her education. “Eventually, I would like to be a nursing educator or professor, but not for a while yet,” she said. “I would like to eventually work for a college to provide some more post-secondary education options for my daughter.”

She developed an interest in healthcare while serving in the military. “I volunteered as an emergency medical technician in between military training and deployments,” she said.

The transition to civilian life was not easy, but Hart felt prepared for it. “Coming home from my deployment and training periods was difficult, because it is such a different life,” she said. “But serving in the National Guard made the transition to an academic lifestyle easier. My military service provided me with the discipline needed to complete an online program.”

She has two bits of advice for military students: Communicate and make good use of your benefits. “Keep in touch with your school’s office of veteran student services,” she said. “They will do anything they can to help you succeed. Make sure you utilize your benefits. The office can help you if you have any questions about benefits, and so can your local VA office.”

A Lifelong Learner

Joseph Laskowski served eight years in the United States Navy Reserve, attaining the rate of petty officer first class. A student in Drexel’s online Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) program, Laskowski also works for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“My employment has been in the private and public sectors,” he said, “and my work experience has been in many fields – electronics, electrical, mechanical, and computing. While many people would question studying all of these fields, I have found that they are interrelated. For example, a computer server center needs electronic security, electrical power, emergency generator back-up, climate control, networking infrastructure, and computer equipment. I enjoy learning new skills, and in today’s environment, continuous education is a part of working in the technology sector.”

“My jobs have taken me all over the United States. Last summer, I was able to work at Marine Corp Base Quantico for about 90 days. The military atmosphere brought back many memories.”

Even though he had a lot of academic achievements, Laskowski felt the need to return to school for his master’s degree. “I have completed four undergraduate degrees over a span of 20 years – at night, while working full-time,” he said. “I completed my bachelor’s in electronics engineering technology while serving in the USNR. But qualifications in the technology sector are constantly changing. There is a military expression, ‘Adapt or die.’ While not quite as harsh in the civilian world, one must constantly adapt and evolve.”

“The worst feeling in the world is not being able to find gainful employment," he said. "When I was 23, I had been a certified marine mechanic for over four years – and I was laid off. I cannot describe how I felt. It was not my fault, but I was out of a job. I vowed to diversify my skill set and constantly take classes that would prepare me for anticipated technology trends. My continuing education classes at night become continuous education for life.”

The quality and flexibility of the online education at Drexel attracted Laskowski. “I work in Philadelphia and live in New Jersey. I need the ability to travel on short notice as part of my job duties,” he said. “Almost all of my jobs have required the ability to travel – which would preclude me from committing to on campus classroom instruction.”

“There are many strong educational institutions in the Philadelphia area. After studying the programs of these schools, I felt, from my life experiences, that Drexel had the strongest computing department.”

“Drexel’s MSIS was one of the first online programs of its type. This is a 15-course program; most such programs have only ten courses. Anyone just trying to get an MSIS checked-off on his or her resume will pick an institution with a lighter course load. Because of the rigorous course load at Drexel, I knew I was going to be in class with motivated students like myself.”

“I have been fortunate to qualify for multiple non-military scholarships,” he said. “While I did not use any specific military education benefit, my service in the military gave me the additional confidence to apply for the scholarships. I also benefit from priority registration that is afforded to veterans at Drexel.”

Laskowski has enjoyed the Drexel program. “The online courses benefit from every resource available to the traditional students,” he said. “In fact, over the years, the traditional students have demanded access to the corresponding online program information because of its high quality. Now, there is a symbiotic relationship that completely eliminates any type of distinction between online students and classroom students.”

“The students can contact the professors in many ways: in-person or by phone, email, classroom discussion boards, etc. Since I work in Philadelphia, I have attended many Drexel events, and I participate in the DVA. The association reaches out to students via live video teleconference streams through social media sites. And DVA meetings are streamed, with Drexel students and alumni able to actively participate in real time.”

Laskowski said that students making the transition from the military to academia may encounter culture shock. “There are ingrained immediate goals in the military, whereas campus life can be completely unstructured,” he said. “There are no existing time-tested routines carefully worked out for efficiency and effectiveness. In the military, we are trained to work as a team with our individual responsibilities. Everyone has to reach beyond themselves, and we are taught to be strong and independent. Everybody is dealing with stress and their own difficulties during the mission. We do not like to ask for help unless absolutely necessary. Our beliefs are strong and rigid; they have to be in order to achieve military success. Campus life is not military life.”

Despite the challenges, the former sailor said his military experience ultimately helped him succeed in his coursework. “Military experience can be invaluable in going back to school,” he said. “Veterans and current servicemembers are disciplined and goal-oriented. In many circumstances, the military provides a wide variety of life experiences that cannot be easily duplicated in civilian life. This allows them to continue their existing career path into the civilian world or start a new direction that the military might not be able to accommodate. Even if a servicemember does not find their final calling in the service, they can narrow the list of possibilities due to their extensive military experiences.”

Laskowski encourages military students to take advantage of all of the resources offered by their schools. “Many institutions offer tutoring, writing reviews, study groups, and more to ease the transition into school,” he said. “Get to know your academic adviser, and visit him or her often, even when you do not feel you have problems.

“Use your veteran’s adviser office immediately if you have problems with your benefits or studies. The best schools for veterans will have a department staffed with experienced advisers who are familiar with the forms, deadlines, and attachments necessary to navigate your benefits. And, while fellow veterans can provide an amazing network, do not be afraid to network with new friends and instructors outside of the military circle as well.”

Laskowski is proud of Drexel’s military connection. “The entire University participates in events honoring the military, as well as their families,” he said. “The staff is sincerely interested in improving the military student experience, with the goal of having every veteran graduate. During graduation ceremonies, veterans are issued a special honor cord indicating their military service, and Drexel has a very active Veterans Alumni Association Network (DVAN).”

Flexibility Was the Key

The flexibility of Drexel’s online education enabled Meghan Moorhouse, spouse of a Coast Guardsman – now retired – to continue her education while stationed in Europe. Earning a master’s degree in global and international education was a personal goal she wanted to achieve before going back to the work force.

“I went to Boston College for my undergraduate education,” she said. “I worked in educational support, with

English language learners, and in upward bound programs. In March 2014, I began Drexel’s online program for a Master of Science in Global and International Education. This was just a couple of weeks after finding out that my family would be moving from Virginia to the Netherlands. Bob, my husband, was active-duty Coast Guard, and we were unexpectedly given orders to Europe.

“I was very happy that I’d chosen Drexel’s online program, and from day one, the online model fit well into my lifestyle and educational needs. I am an independent learner. I really did need that flexibility to be able to do the work on my own schedule. I got used to taking my laptop with me wherever we would go to use the wi-fi. There are pictures of me writing papers in some pretty interesting places. In addition, I liked that the Drexel program was more in line with what I had done previously and how I wanted to position myself.”

Moorhouse enjoyed the support she got from the staff at Drexel and from the military. “There are a lot of great things about being a part of a military family,” she said. “There’s a lot of support, and I used my husband’s GI Bill. The most challenging thing about going back to school, especially in the beginning, was feeling confident that I had something to offer. I found Drexel to be really supportive, with offerings like priority registration.

“Over the past two years, I worked on my degree while also experiencing international education through my children. We put our two sons, Emmett (10) and Colin (7), into a nearby Belgian school, where they were the only Americans. They were completely immersed in a new language – Belgium Flemish – and a new culture and style of education.”

“The global and international education program and my family’s actual experience with international education have really complemented each other. I was able to apply what I was learning in the program to my children’s experiences in a different country’s educational system, and my personal experiences helped enhance my academic learning and class discussion posts.”

Her family’s support during her studies also meant a lot to Moorhouse. “Both my husband and kids were really supportive,” she said. “They’ve only ever know me as ‘mom,’ so it was great for them getting to see me working towards something that was meaningful.”

“I finished my independent capstone project in March 2016. I researched how U.S. institutions are responding to, and engaging with, the growing number of American gap year students – those who take a year off between high school and college. In April, we celebrated my program completion with my family and friends during a visit back to the States. My children gave me a hand-made diploma that I intend to display alongside my official Drexel one.”

Friday October 28, 2016

This article appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of Search & Employ Magazine