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Columbia College crosses borders

A program for earning degrees on military bases includes a campus in Cuba.
Wednesday, July 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Eisenhardt wants to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, but he has to complete his college degree first and is stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. With the help of Columbia College, Eisenhardt is working toward his goal.

“We are on a U.S. Navy base but we are very isolated. This campus allows us to continue or start an education as if we were in the U.S. or other non-isolated bases,” said Eisenhardt, who is pursing a degree in business administration.

Before Columbia College began offering classes in January, the City Colleges of Chicago had a campus in Guantanamo Bay, offering associate degrees. The Navy, however, wanted an institution that could offer both associate and bachelor’s degree programs on the base, so last July Navy officials asked Columbia College if the college would consider coming to the island. Columbia College officials didn’t hesitate.

“We certainly know that education has been the number one reason military members enlist, and that’s been that way for decades now,” said Mike Randerson, associate vice president and dean of the extended studies division at Columbia College. “Being able to offer a credible education experience to military members and their families is pretty satisfying,” he said.

Currently, there are 94 students enrolled in their third eight-week session of classes, and campus director Ellen Soucy has spoken with more than 700 prospective students since the campus opened. Yet establishing a successful campus in a closed country was not accomplished without difficulties.

Supplies for the campus all had to be barged or flown into the bay. Randerson said that over the course of a year, the college plans to spend about $250,000 on the campus, making it about 25 percent more expensive than the college’s other extended campuses of similar size on military bases.

Randerson and Soucy stressed that the biggest challenge in opening the campus was finding qualified individuals to serve as adjunct professors on its campus.

Instructors had to be chosen from those already at the base. Columbia College requires its instructors to have a master’s degree in their disciplines. Yet qualified adjuncts have been found and three- to five-seat classes have been offered in each class session so far.

With the help of a satellite Internet provider out of Virginia, and a donation of 141 computers from Dell, access to Columbia College’s online campus was made possible to offer students a more complete education.

Eisenhardt has taken both seat and online classes and said the two types are working together to help him meet the deadline for the requirements of his commissioning.

“As long as the student can access the Internet, he/she can continue with Columbia College after departing Guantanamo Bay. This is a huge plus to members of the military as they are frequently assigned to new duty stations or posts in the U.S. and around the world,” Soucy wrote in an e-mail from Guantanamo Bay.

Columbia College’s success in Guantanamo Bay also comes as the result of more than 30 years in military education. In 1973, Columbia College was asked to provide education for army recruiters in St. Louis. From this start, the campus has since expanded to 30 locations across the United States.

Half of Columbia College’s extended campus locations are on military bases and about 25 percent of their student base consists of military personnel. Columbia College also offers credit for military training and experience that can apply to their various degree programs.

Columbia College is a charter member of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges network, which allows students to follow their initial degree program and transfer credits back to their home institution. Students can finish what they started, even if it was a long time ago, Soucy said.

“It actually was serendipity that caused us to serve military personnel, and as it turned out, not only were we asked to do it by the military, but were amongst the first institutions that actually said yes. This transformed us into an institution that serves adult learners,” said Randerson.


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