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MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - An instructor with Coastal Carolina Community College hands Marine students some assignments back during a lunchtime class at the John A. Lejeune education center here. Active-duty military members are eligible to receive apprenticeship completion certificates, along with 100 percent tuition assistance for taking classes on the base campus, through postal correspondence and various universities online. Personnel may speak with a counselor aboard the Lifelong Learning Center here to discuss their higher learning goals and look into off-duty educational opportunities here and while overseas.

Photo by Cpl. Mike Escobar

Higher learning anything but impossible for today’s expeditionary Corps

10 Jan 2006 | Cpl. Mike Escobar

Nationwide, recruiters of all military services tout educational benefits as one of the top reasons of why young men and women should enlist.  From dispensing tens of thousands of dollars upon completion of a service contract, to affording the opportunity of taking college courses aboard a base campus, the incentives used draw countless of academically motivated applicants into the service year after year.

Down the road, however, many Marines and sailors quickly become discouraged or feeling like they were cheated out of their benefits upon checking in to their first permanent duty station.  There, they are told that the unit is deploying to a combat zone within months, and they must put in extra hours, days, even weeks, in the field or in the office to prepare for war.  With lots of work and time spent away from home, service members start thinking that they have no time and energy left to devote to their studies.

Women like Diane Gillaspie and Johanna Rose work as education technicians here for the Lifelong Learning Division, known also as the Base Education Center, to dispel such commonly held misconceptions.  From here, they help deployed Marines and sailors, and those expecting to leave soon, attain their education goals.

Currently, they deal with approximately 500 Marines and sailors deployed worldwide, 300 of which are in Iraq.

“People have to remember that getting a college education doesn’t have to mean just sitting in a classroom,” Rose stated.  “Many schools offer course work via correspondence, CD-ROMs and the Internet.”

Nevertheless, she recommended that all personnel stop by the education center to start the process of obtaining a degree.  There, a counselor sits down with each prospective student to discuss their academic goals and advise them on the opportunities available.  Each student is handled on a case-by-case basis, Rose added.

“We typically send guys like the ‘grunts’ to the DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support) website,” Gillaspie said, referring to the service that allows service members to obtain degrees and certifications using distance learning methods.  “Non-traditional colleges have become real popular recently because of all the deployments going on.”

According to the DANTES website (www.dantes.doded.mil), the distance learning program provides a range of nontraditional education programs for service members who want to fulfill degree requirements when classroom courses are unavailable and when work schedules or duty locations prevent class attendance.

Additionally, DANTES provides undergraduate and graduate-level academic courses from nearly 150 institutions, as well as other courses oriented toward a non-degree-seeking or technically oriented student.

Whether one attends a college campus while stateside or completes the courses through email and postal correspondence, Rose said Tuition Assistance (TA) is available to all active-duty personnel to cover 100 percent of their tuition expenses, up to $250 per semester hour or $4,500 per fiscal year.  All a Marine or sailor must do to obtain TA is select a course of study, such as an associates degree or certification program, fill out the TA request form, and get it signed off by their chain of command.  Once approved, the service member must only pay for the courses’ textbooks or any school application fees if their institute requires one.

“TA is only available while you’re on active duty, and it’s completely separate from the GI Bill,” Rose emphasized.  “You want to use TA as soon as possible to accomplish your immediate education goals and save your GI Bill to pursue further studies (upon leaving the military).”

Rose added that students who must drop a course due to military operational requirements, such as deployments, are withdrawn from the course without being liable to pay the government back.

Being aware of this “safety net,” many commands overseas are currently encouraging their troops to pursue their education during their downtime, she added.

“A lot of them are approving TA requests because they know it’s a good way for the Marines to spend their down time,” Rose continued.  “Some commands even have tents with computers set up just for students to do their college class work.”

Gunnery Sgt. James Aurilio is one Marine who expects to deploy within the next two months to Iraq but is taking advantage of some of these educational benefits already.

“I’m majoring in occupational training and development through the University of Louisville right now,” explained the company master gunner with Company A, 2nd Tank Battalion.  “I stopped by the Base Education Center today to get my TA paperwork dialed in before I deploy.  This will be the first time I take college courses from Iraq, and I see it as a way of getting ahead of the ballgame.” 

For students not wishing to pursue a college degree like Aurilio’s, the Lifelong Learning Center offers a vocational alternative, said Rick Bowman, an education technician.

“We offer apprenticeship certification programs for Marines and sailors in (more than 100) different military occupational specialties,” he continued.  “If you get out and you decide to compete for a technical job, you’ll have experience in the military and in your respective trade.”

Federal and North Carolina state governments both recognize this experience, because the Department of Labor awards personnel a certificate of completion of apprenticeship upon finishing the program, Bowman explained.  All a Marine or sailor must do to earn this diploma is log in the number of hours worked each week at their respective tasks in their MOS field.  Each field has various duties and a different amount of on-the-job hours required of each worker in order to complete the certification program.

“It gets even better while you’re on deployment, simply because a lot of the time you’re putting in 16-hour workdays, seven days a week,” Bowman added.  “As long as you log in the number of hours you work in the logbooks we provide, you’re good.  If you try to get an apprenticeship later on in the civilian world, it will cost you a lot of time and money.  Right now, you can get it for free.”

The education counselors added that the apprenticeship certifications and obtaining a college degree are only some of the services and benefits the Lifelong Learning Center offers.  They and Aurilio also encouraged all Marines and sailors to discuss their academic and vocational goals with a counselor.

“If I can manage it with a full work schedule, a marriage and two kids, anyone can,” Aurilio continued.  “You have to look out for your life after the Marine Corps.”

The Lifelong Learning Center is located in building 202 across the street from the base theater and is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.  They may be reached at (910) 451-3091/92.

Personnel may also log onto www.mccslejeune.com, click on the “Marine and Family Services” link and select “Lifelong Learning” for more information.